23 March 2018
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More divorces being settled by mediation

Straits Times
01 Mar 2018
Rahimah Rashith

Fewer cases having to go through contested hearings as more help in place: Family court

Almost seven out of 10 divorce cases that went to mediation last year were resolved through the process, without the need to go to contested hearings.

The "encouraging results" were helped by support schemes and simplified processes, as well as the efforts of family court staff and partners in the community, Justice Debbie Ong, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts (FJC), said yesterday.

The figures are an improvement from 2016, when 6.5 out of 10 cases were fully resolved through mediation, and in line with plans to make divorce proceedings less adversarial, minimising conflict for the sake of any children involved.

Speaking at the FJC's Workplan 2018 seminar, Justice Ong also noted that 15 per cent of the cases were partially resolved, meaning that fewer issues went on to contested hearings.

She was speaking at the Supreme Court in her first public speech since her appointment as Presiding Judge of FJC last September. During the session, she laid out the court's priorities and plans for the next phase of family justice in Singapore.

Justice Ong said that even when parties make applications to court, there "will always be the possibility of mediation or non-litigious resolution at all stages in the divorce process".

The FJC is setting up an online dispute resolution (ODR) system - which will allow users to seek resolution without having to litigate - for child maintenance claims.

It will include a simulator to help parties understand the possible outcome of a maintenance claim, and a forum for both parties to negotiate. If negotiation fails, online mediation of the claims will be provided.

"It is envisaged that ODR will help parties to resolve their child maintenance claims earlier and with less costs, ultimately benefiting the children," said Justice Ong.

Other FJC plans include a study of how elderly and vulnerable court users can be helped through the court process.

Her speech stressed the FJC's role in meeting the needs of various family members embroiled in legal disputes.

"It is important that parties recognise the role of FJC as a court which applies the law to reach a just decision between both parties; it is not an 'agency' that serves the needs of only one party," she said. "Respect for the court's authority is necessary in the family justice system."

She added that the presence of children makes it necessary for the FJC to take on a broader role and that the recently formed inter-agency Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF) committee will work to empower parties to make decisions that are good for their children.

Measures include facilitating access to various support services before they even file for divorce.

Justice Ong co-chairs the RERF committee along with the permanent secretaries of the Ministry of Social and Family Development and Ministry of Law.

Its purview includes promoting alternative and multi-disciplinary approaches to conflict resolution, reducing the cost and complexity of proceedings, and strengthening access to family justice.

As part of the work plan, lawyers and judges will also be trained. The FJC will work with The Law Society of Singapore and the Singapore Academy of Law to offer appropriate training in two upcoming conferences on family law and justice.

FJC is also looking into developing a targeted and specialised curriculum for family judges that emphasises the specific competencies in family justice.

Lawyer Raymond Yeo said: "Mediation has always been the forefront where the family court is concerned, because this will be the alternative route to an adversarial approach."

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.