“Why we must remove lawyers from the Family Justice System”

This is a letter written by a father affected by divorce.

by Matt Lim

Families are the bedrock of society. They shape our values and worldview, and are our first line of defense in the many challenges of life. It is thus an understatement to say that national policies related to the family and “family justice” are critically important to the health, and wealth, of our nation. If this first line of defense is breached – if we do not get our family policies and systems right – our society is on the surest path to failure.

Divorce rates in Singapore are climbing year after year. This has happened despite the fact that marriage rates have been stagnant or falling. Based on current statistics, more than 1 in 4 marriages today will end in divorce (this ratio is higher for more recent marriages). Each year, more than 14,000 Singaporeans undergo divorce, and another 5,000 children under the age of 21 suffer in silence. In the last ten years alone, almost 200,000 Singaporeans would have been directly affected by divorce – not counting the extended families who share in the pain.

The problem is real, and the problem is serious. Why have we reached such a stage in Singapore? The Family Justice Court (FJC) was reconstituted in 2014 to provide more specialized services to cope with family-related disputes such as divorce. However, in the few years since then, it is becoming clear that the FJC is not achieving its intended objectives. Initial goals of “simplifying court processes and making it easier for litigants-in-person” have given way to a new stance that “it may not be possible to simplify”. At the same time, family lawyers find it justifiable to charge “$10,000 to over $100,000” for their legal services, while claiming that “divorcing spouses are unreasonable or intolerant”.

While it may be that a minority of divorcing spouses act unreasonably, it cannot be true that the vast majority of divorcing couples prefer acrimonious and long-drawn litigation to a more amicable resolution. Such statements by family lawyers and other stakeholders in the family justice system are mischievous or misguided. The fact is, in many cases, divorcing couples are literally “forced” by the system and processes to prolong litigation. By keeping court processes complex and not user-friendly, divorcing parties have to engage lawyers, who in turn are driven by commercial and self-interests to prevent amicable settlement.

The consequences of such dysfunction in our family justice system are severe. Innocent children are being now used as “hostages” in the divorce process, where one parent abducts the child and denies them access to the other parent  – subjecting them to tremendous emotional and psychological abuse. Such alienating behavior often persist post-divorce, and many children end up in “single parent” families. Another contributory factor to this problem is FJC’s refusal – in the face of scientific evidence and the adverse effects of its decisions on children and families – to grant shared care & control in divorce cases.

Family issues are mostly emotional entanglements, and the right professional in such circumstances should be a trained mediator or counsellor. Involving a lawyer complicates matters, and often blows things out of proportion. On family matters, we need to heed the Chinese saying of “大事化小,小事化无”, and not the other way around. Lawyers can be a vociferous and conniving group, and divorce has developed into a multimillion-dollar industry in some countries. But as a small country, the impact of divorce and broken families will be acutely felt. We cannot allow our family justice system and the welfare of families in Singapore to be held hostage by the interests of the legal profession.

This can be a difficult and bold decision to make, but one which is absolutely crucial if we are to restore the strength and health of families in Singapore. The current intertwining interests between the FJC and family lawyers – where family court judges move back to private practice, and vice versa – make any meaningful reform of the family justice system, led by the FJC or Ministry of Law, highly unlikely. We need to remove, or seriously review, the role of lawyers – and set our family justice system on a virtuous path of healing and reconciliation.