Therapeutic Justice – A new approach to divorce in Singapore

Divorce is understandably one of the most stressful events in any individual’s life. Where there are children to the marriage and assets to be divided between parties, matters only get even more complicated. Therefore, it is unsurprising that divorce proceedings have the potential to become extremely acrimonious, as each party to the divorce feels that they have to fight for the things that, in their view, rightfully belong to them.

This could result in each party trying to look for the most damaging evidence against the other party or parties acting unreasonably, preventing the children from seeing the other parent.

 

What is Therapeutic Justice?

It is precisely this situation of acrimony and bitterness that the Therapeutic Justice approach tries to avoid. As stated by Presiding Judge Debbie Ong in her Family Justice Courts Workplan Address 2020, therapeutic justice is a lens of ‘care’ that seeks to address the family’s interrelated legal and non-legal issues to reach an outcome that improves the whole family’s functioning beyond breakdown.

Justice Debbie Ong also stated that “divorce should be no worse than a re-organisation of family members’ living arrangements and the divorced spouses should still be able to continue to discharge their parental responsibilities with some degree of co-operation”.

In this regard, Justice Debbie Ong highlighted a few desirable outcomes that the re-organisation of family arrangements after divorce should achieve. These are:

  1. The family’s living arrangements and financial needs must be addressed;
  2. Parents must cooperate in discharging their parental responsibilities, in caring and providing for their children. This co-parenting needs to continue for many years ahead, even after the divorce has concluded; and
  3. There should be healing and restoration that enables the family to transit and adjust to their new lives, to stabilize drastically changed circumstances.

 

What parties to a divorce should not do

Justice Debbie Ong also highlighted that Singapore’s family justice system must be a non-adversarial one and “problem-solving”. Justice Ong made clear that parties should not use the Court proceedings to vent their frustrations but should instead use therapeutic services to support them regarding the emotional consequences of family breakdown. In this regard, Justice Ong listed a few things that parties to divorce proceedings cannot do moving forward. The list is set out below:

  1. Do not send inflammatory letters to each other, and kill the chances of cooperation.
  2. Do not allege the worst of the other spouse in affidavits in divorce proceedings, especially personally hurtful things, even going back 20 years or more.
  3. Do not file many applications, only to increase costs and deplete savings, shrink the size of the matrimonial assets, and increase complexity unnecessarily.
  4. Do not let the children suffer the conflict of loyalty and other stress, or burden them with your own issues.
  5. Do not turn the children against the other parent.

 

The principles behind Therapeutic Justice

In charting the way forward for the Singapore family justice system, Presiding Judge Debbie Ong set out the following principles:

  1. First, the parties are not adversaries in Court; and
  2. Secondly, the entire journey should allow the healing, restoring and recasting of a positive future. It should allow parties time to grieve over the loss of the marriage and be supported through this.

To achieve the above, Justice Ong pointed to providing both “upstream” and “downstream” services to better help families through the divorce process as painlessly as possible. About the former, the Presiding Judge suggested building a strong multi-disciplinary family justice system where parties can comfortably reach therapeutic interventions and support as early as possible. Relevant and digestible information on processes and access to counselling should also be available upfront. Justice Ong stated that with the adoption of therapeutic justice in the family justice system, parties should be assisted in acquiring the skills they need to manage their lives ahead, such as (a) how to manage conflict; (b) how to co-parent, and (c) how to access appropriate support services in future. Such skills are forward-looking in nature and will help parties move on post-divorce.

The sentiments set out in Presiding Judge Debbie Ong’s Workplan Address were echoed by the Singapore Court of Appeal in a recent case. Notably, the Court stated that the family justice system is one that, despite the parties’ problems, is intended to aid the parties and their children in achieving as much healing in all its various aspects as possible. This is to allow parties to move forward as positively as possible with their lives.

The Court of Appeal emphasised that therapeutic justice “is not merely an ideal; it is a necessity” and that the concept of therapeutic justice is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. This is because when relationships are damaged, such damage cannot be repaired merely by way of material recompense (such as money and assets). Instead, the Court stated that healing needs to occur and that such healing would not even begin to occur if parties were locked in an antagonistic war against each other.

The key lessons to take away from Justice Ong’s Workplan Address and the pronouncements made by Singapore’s highest court are that a therapeutic justice approach to family litigation is a problem-solving one focused on helping parties and their children heal from damaged familial relationships. The ideal outcome from adopting a therapeutic justice approach is for families to be able to move on from the divorce and adjust successfully to their new lives.

Implementation of the therapeutic justice approach in Singapore

In light of the therapeutic justice approach adopted in the Singapore family justice system, Presiding Judge Ong set out a few pilot projects that would be implemented for a trial period before being implemented to a wider section of family court litigants if successful, as well as projects which are currently in the works.

Multi-Disciplinary Team Pilot (“the MDT Pilot”)

The MDT Pilot will explore how judges, mediators, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists can work together to resolve the family’s issues holistically through a coordinated multi-disciplinary team effort. The MDT Pilot will also involve how to “triage” at the earliest opportunity to assess needs and determine the real issues faced by the parties.

The MDT Pilot will also consider how case management should take place and what steps should be taken. Such steps could include early Intensive Family Intervention led by the Court’s family specialists. In addition, they will use “cooperative family conferencing”, which involves the parties, lawyers, and social science professionals.

Litigation Assist System

The electronic Litigation Assist system is a portal that will facilitate the generation and submission of documents. The system will also assist parties in drafting Court orders and facilitating online negotiations between parties.

Redesigning the Family Justice Rules

The revamped Family Justice Rules and corresponding Practice Directions will streamline processes to make them more straightforward. The simplification of procedural rules is also aimed at making the rules more readable and user-friendly. In addition, the project will overhaul the format of the current Family Justice Rules to increase the ease of use and understanding.
The Litigation Assist System and the redesign of the Family Justice Rules aim to tweak the “hardware” of the Singapore justice system, which facilitates Court processes, ensuring that participants in the Court process enjoy enhanced access to justice.

How PKWA Law can help you

In light of the above discussion of therapeutic justice and the practical methods in which this approach is adopted in Singapore, it is hoped that parties to divorce proceedings will engage in less acrimonious behaviour moving forward. The Singapore judiciary has recognised that with all stakeholders’ participation and efforts in the divorce proceedings, parties will move on as painlessly as possible and transition into their new re-organised lives.

PKWA Law is committed to using Therapeutic Justice to help families resolve their issues. Our divorce lawyers will guide you to make reasonable and well-informed decisions. Our goal is to help you reach an agreement that protects your family and children and helps parties to adjust to new lives apart.

Author

Lim Chong Boon

Head of Family Law & General Litigation Practice

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