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Family courts will adopt holistic approach to solving disputes

SINGAPORE — When it comes to family disputes, a holistic approach is needed to address problems early on without having to resort to the courts, said Judge of Appeal V K Rajah yesterday.

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SINGAPORE — When it comes to family disputes, a holistic approach is needed to address problems early on without having to resort to the courts, said Judge of Appeal V K Rajah yesterday.

The welfare and best interests of children should also be the “paramount consideration” in resolving such disputes, Justice Rajah told a seminar as he outlined the approach that the Committee for Family Justice took in coming up with its recommendations to revamp the family justice system here. The recommendations were released in a public consultation paper on May 7.

Justice Rajah, who chairs the committee with Senior Minister of State (Law and Education) Indranee Rajah, said apart from the feedback received by stakeholders that going to court was not ideal, concerns were also raised on the need to reduce acrimony inherent in family disputes that ended up in court.

Following the release of the public consultation paper — which includes recommendations such as the setting up of the Family Justice Courts to handle all family-related cases — Justice Rajah said the committee would be looking next at specific aspects of the family justice system, such as issues concerning the enforcement of maintenance orders, and youth- and juvenile-related issues. Nothing would be off the table, “including considerations on whether we should rename the Women’s Charter”, he added.

Earlier this month, High Court Judge Choo Han Teck suggested that the Women’s Charter be renamed to reflect a more encompassing and gender-neutral law. His suggestion reignited the perennial debate over the level of protection women are entitled to under the charter.

Addressing about 80 participants at yesterday’s seminar, which was jointly held by the Singapore Academy of Law, Ministry of Law, Ministry of Social and Family Development, and the State Courts, Justice Rajah said the committee consulted various stakeholders — including lawyers, social workers, academics, the judiciary and government agencies — on a range of issues in the family justice system over the past year.

Committee members also made study trips to Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Justice Rajah pointed out that going to court is not ideal for family cases, as “things usually would have become both intractable and sometimes ugly” by the time a matter reaches the courts. Underlying problems, such as gambling, alcohol addiction or anger management issues, also need to be identified and tackled.

Court proceedings, meanwhile, would tend to be protracted and emotionally charged, he added. For instance, affidavits would be lengthy and repetitive, as parties would feel compelled to rebut every point made against them, however minor.

Many of those consulted also felt that the child’s interests were not sufficiently represented in such cases, with the committee having heard stories of parents coaching children to mislead counsellors, forcing them to take sides, and children being afraid or unable to articulate their wishes.

From its study trips, Justice Rajah added, the committee also felt that there were suitable elements that could be adopted locally, such as empowering judges to take a more proactive role in family court proceedings, and having social and psychological service professionals be more heavily involved in assisting the courts.​

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