Earlier this month, the Committee for Family Justice, and inter-agency committee, delivered its recommendations on a new framework for the family justice system to the Government. The Committee had four main goals:
- Protect and support the family as the basic unit of our society;
- Ensure that the interests of the child are protected;
- Effectively and fairly resolve family conflicts;
- Reduce the emotional burden, time and cost of resolving family disputes; and
- Increase access to family justice for all.
The recommendations have been accepted by the Government and tabled in Parliament as the Family Justice Bill. They will provide the blueprint for the family justice system on the road ahead. As a whole, the recommendations serve to enhance the system by making improvements in several areas.
Specialist Divorce Support Agencies
The first key recommendation is in establishing specialist divorce support agencies, to be run by voluntary welfare agencies supported by the government. Currently, welfare agencies already provide family support, for example in handling family violence. The plan calls for them to establish specialised support for divorce in the form of counselling, providing advice, and family dispute management. This allows for centres to which all support matters related to divorce may flow.
Consultation Session before Filing for Divorce
The second key recommendation is a mandatory pre-filing consultation session that must be conducted before filing for divorce for parties with children who are minors. The point of the session is to help parents understand the impact of divorce on their children. It highlights the needs of the children and encourages them to prioritise the welfare of their children before filing for divorce.
Establishment of the Family Justice Courts
The third key recommendation is the establishment of the Family Justice Courts that will hear all family-related cases. The Family Justice Courts will have differentiated court processes, meaning that different cases will go into different tracks depending on the issues that arise. Urgent cases can be dealt with more quickly. There is increasing recognition that most of the litigants before the court are not represented by lawyers. Thus, besides making court processes more streamlined and easy to understand, there will also be a Court Friend scheme that provides practical assistance such as filing forms to those who come before the courts.
A Different Approach in Adjudicating Family Disputes
As opposed to an adversarial approach, where the two sides take the aggressive role of arguing their case, a more judge-led approach will assist in less acrimonious dispute resolution. There will be greater powers for the courts to direct parties to family support services and to order parties to mediate their disputes, among other options. With a greater emphasis on the welfare of children following a divorce, it has also been recommended that more information be furnished to the judge by the Counselling and Psychological Services of the State Courts regarding the wishes and feelings of the children.
In the same vein, another recommendation is to have the appointment of Child Representatives in court proceedings involving children. The Child Representative will advocate on behalf of the child after finding out what would be in the best interests of the child.
Training and Accreditation for Family Law Practitioners
The framework also calls for lawyers who practise family law to undergo training to practise family law in a manner that promotes the ethos of the new family justice system. They would have to be comfortable with the judge-managed approach and less adversarial techniques in family litigation, and be familiar with non-legal aspects of family cases such as the availability of social support services. Lawyers who undergo such training will be accredited.