To change or not to change divorce law

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In Hamlet, he lamented, “…to be or not to be: that is the question”. In Singapore, there have been proposed changes to divorce laws. The real issue is not all changes are to be welcomed but that some have to be approached with care.

This is particularly true when considering the review of the family justice system by a committee co-chaired by Senior Minister of State (Law) Indranee Rajah and Judge of Appeal VK Rajah, whose proposed changes could take effect as early as the end of the year.

This review has thrown up a number of proposed amendments including permitting divorcing couples to submit only a one-page document containing key information (such as the income of the respective parties) instead of more comprehensive affidavits. The aim is to streamline the divorce process so as to make it more efficient and, thereby, better protect the interests of the divorcing couple. The opposite may be true.

Such proposed amendments to the conduct of matrimonial cases would effectively take proceedings out of the hands of lawyers, who act in the client’s best interest and place it squarely in the hands of judges under what is known as an inquisitorial approach to divorce proceedings.The judge will take a central role and query into matters and adjudicate between the divorcing parties.

The downside to this issue is that although there has been a sharp increase in divorces in Singapore – since 1980 divorces have gone up by more than four times its previous number to 7,237 in 2012 –  there are fewer  than 20 family court judges. This works out to each judge handling around 361 cases. No matter how competent or efficient the judiciary may be, if the judge pool is not increased proportionately this may mean that the race to finish cases may involve an inquisition that may not necessarily do justice to the case.

If a husband has always been the more outspoken one in the marriage, he would be able to articulate his case better and the wife who is the “silent type” may not be better off.

The existing system has lawyers acting for either party, apply for relevant documents and sniff out hidden assets through procedural tools. Would a judge, having 360 other cases waiting in his in-tray apply the same tenacious quest for the truth? Many will. Some might not, but it would be regrettable if any case is compromised as a result of the one-page document that does not contain the essentials.

It is wholly misconceived to think lawyers add to the antagonism and acrimony found in divorce.  Divorce involves an emotional connection and the hurt of a betrayal cannot be resolved without a proper inquest. Family lawyers, by and large, have offered great assistance to courts to arrive at a fair and just decision. Lawyers play a noble role in divorce proceedings to assist the presiding judge to become acquainted with the facts to come to a balanced decision.

Some of the proposed changes may actually bring a refreshing change to this area of the law, but it is crucial to tread lightly here and exercise some caution. The proposed process, whilst highly efficient to clear the backlog may penalise the victims and some spouses get away with blue murder.So, the healing is longer or never, the anger never subsides, the system has led you down and this leads to resentment among divorcing couples as in truth,  hell hath no fury like a “client”who does not have her day in court.