Family court cases via Zoom the new normal
There will be family lawyers who are reinventing their practice, reinventing themselves, and seeing family work in a new light: Debbie Ong J
For family practice lawyer Beatrice Yeo, nine out of 10 family court hearings on her brief are done via Zoom.
The videoconferencing platform enables the disputing parties and their lawyers to attend hearings remotely from their homes, offices or elsewhere.
This is the emerging new normal in family law hearings, said lawyers, pointing to savings in cost and time as well as other benefits of virtual courts, which appear to be the inevitable future direction of the Singapore judicial system.
Working from home also promotes work-life balance through flexi-work arrangements and makes for a "new-age" firm, added Ms Yeo, 39, whose 10-year-old firm Yeo & Associates has 11 lawyers and eight support staff.
Sharing her sentiments, Mr Mohamed Baiross, managing partner of I.R.B Law, noted that "everything is now on Zoom, including trials like PPO (personal protection order) applications".
"As a result, our legal costs have dropped by 25 per cent, which translates into savings for our clients."
Lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng recalled a four-hour, judge-led mediation session via Zoom earlier this month, in which the former spouses and the lawyers attended remotely from their respective homes and offices.
"The Zoom hearing is less intimidating as both parties have bitter memories that can spill into acrimony if there was a face-off in court. But on the screen there is the distance between parties which makes for a less hostile and more conducive environment," said Mr Ong, who represented the former wife in the case.
Writing on The New Normal in the current issue of The Law Society's Law Gazette, family lawyer Rajan Chettiar said: "I hope the Family Justice Courts will continue to do Zoom hearings and telecases (hearings done via teleconferencing) which have been successful so far and efficiently carried out."
He added: "What has happened to us in the last two months? We found a new way to work and live at home, though we find the line between work and home blurring.
"Technology that we are used to became essential and took over our lives. We created professional and social lives through videoconferencing platforms and phone calls."
Mr Rajan also said lawyers have changed their mindset, "some may say under duress, but it is a change nonetheless".
But the shift in family law practice goes beyond just the advantages of doing things remotely and via Zoom.
"It is an enormous" shift, said Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts Debbie Ong at a webinar on family law earlier this month.
"We have heard over the years that family practice is a specialised practice, that we must seek out harmonious resolution and adopt a less adversarial system, and so it may seem that our current aspiration may not be anything very new.
"But to those who have walked the journey in more intimate ways, they will realise the huge shift today - we see our family justice system today as non-adversarial, not just less adversarial."
Such a move would require lawyers to further boost their mediation and interpersonal skills that will become increasingly core skills. It will also pave the way for the building of a new system, said Justice Ong.
"The court will provide that guidance and support so that lawyers know when they can tell their clients that they cannot do certain acts, and that the court is not going to look with favour on certain types of conduct," she added.
"There will be family lawyers who are reinventing their practice, reinventing themselves, and seeing family work in a new light."
Family law reforms not a quick fix, says judge
Reforms in family law practice are far from being quick fixes, said the Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts, Justice Debbie Ong, adding that the entire system and understanding of family need time to develop.
It takes time to assess these needs, learn from social science research, pilot new initiatives and review them in the light of the evolving situations in society, she said.
"Does anybody actually think family law is static? People's attitudes and values can change over time too, especially over generations," Justice Ong said in an interview with the Singapore Academy of Law earlier this month.
Her remarks underline the "hugely important role" family lawyers play as family law evolves amid a "mindset change" and a "non-adversarial" approach.
She believes the norm will be a non-combative, harmonious route to resolution, not litigation.
This is based on "the conviction that parental conflict harms children and the acceptance that litigation should be avoided", she said. "Cases that do require court adjudication will likely be more complex and a more robust judge-led approach in these cases will be taken."
Lawyers will help shape strong and durable agreements on legal issues for the parties and this, Justice Ong added, will require understanding and experience on key aspects of family law.
They would also need to develop new skills and attitudes, including mediation and interpersonal skills to calm and engage emotional clients, as well as know how to protect children's interests, she said.
"If parties agree to poorly thought-out terms, the issues not addressed by the agreed terms can cause difficulties and further conflicts in future."
This is the second in a Straits Times fortnightly series that examines legal issues of interest against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim of the articles by Senior Law Correspondent K.C. Vijayan is to inform, educate and enhance awareness. Today's article dwells on aspects of family law and practice. Future topics include perspectives on foreign law firms, legal technologies and contracts disrupted by Covid-19.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.