Divorcing parents should depend less on legal remedies and focus more on the welfare of the child when wrangling over care, control and access, said J
Divorcing parents should depend less on legal remedies and focus more on the welfare of the child when wrangling over care, control and access, said Justice Debbie Ong, the presiding judge of the Family Justice Courts (FJC).
In a recent e-mail interview with The Straits Times, Justice Ong, who took over as presiding judge last October, said that letting the court settle child access disputes was less ideal than parents making healthy arrangements by agreement, even if it means parents not getting their way.
“The process of healing and ensuring that the children are well protected from the negative effects of family breakdown takes individual effort, personal responsibility and sacrifice,” she added.
Child access had been the subject of several recent letters to The Straits Times Forum page, with readers raising issues like “gatekeeping” on the part of the parent who has been granted control.
Generally, a child resides for the greater proportion of time with the parent with “care and control”, while the parent with “access” spends time with the child usually on weekends. This means the child has to spend different periods of time separately with each parent.
“When parties contest over the time they have with their child, they may miss this perspective from the eyes of the child,” she said.
“One of the greatest challenges in disputes over children is what has been raised in the letters – a common complaint of ‘access’ parents is that the other parent refuses to give access and gives instead an excuse that the child refuses to go for access. It may well be that the care parent is ‘gatekeeping’ or ‘alienating’ the child from the access parent.”
The judge said she had seen evidence of extreme gatekeeping and alienating behaviour on the part of both mothers and fathers.
“In the face of all these challenges, strengthening education, counselling, mediation, therapeutic interventions, case management powers and enforcement measures may meet the challenges to a larger extent.”
Parents should be supported in gaining a good understanding of what it takes to raise a child caught in a family breakdown, she added.
“Parental responsibility, imposed by the law, is not an option; it is a legal responsibility. It includes putting aside one’s personal agenda and making sacrifices to reduce conflict so as to safeguard the child’s interests.”
Justice Ong’s remarks underscore the interests of children as a core concern in the family justice system.
The judge pointed out that more lawyers have been trained in family mediation and collaborative law practice and more are serving as child representatives and parenting coordinators, all of which translate into a less adversarial approach in family law practice.
More divorcing couples are now also resolving all issues amicably without the court’s intervention, with seven out of 10 cases filed under the normal divorce track resolved without a court battle, she added. “The cases that require adjudication are a small percentage. These cases that ultimately come to the courts involve parents who are unable to put aside their differences despite all the help and intervention available – our judges are dealing with the most challenging cases of high conflict.”
The FJC has a team ofcourt “family specialists” who work with the judges to provide risk screening and connect high-risk individuals to relevant external help agencies to provide longer-term support for them.
“There is a sensitive case ‘watch list’ across the departments and help agencies (where relevant) to ensure that vulnerable parties are supported during the proceedings,” she said.
RISK WHEN EMOTIONS RUN HIGH IN DIVORCE
The “very tragic and sad” case of Phillipe Graffart, who killed his child during a bitter dispute with his estranged wife, showed the breakdown in family relationships is often “emotive and challenging, with some element of risk”, said Justice Debbie Ong.
After smothering the sedated five-year-old boy with a cushion on Oct 5, 2015, Graffart, 42, unsuccessfully tried to kill himself before surrendering to police.
The Belgian expatriate was jailed for five years by the High Court in 2016 for culpable homicide while suffering from severe depression during the child custody battle.
Graffart’s tragic actions arose out of the bigger divorce squabble with his estranged French wife Gwendoline.
Asked if lawyers and others who support the opposing parties in an acrimonious divorce may add “fuel to the fire”, Justice Ong said: “Lawyers, well-meaning relatives, well-meaning best friends who give support with empathy and indignation at the alleged misconduct of the other spouse, may all add fuel in some way.”
She explained it could be that, in some cases, lawyers may be instructed by their emotional clients to take confrontational steps, but instead of calming them down and advising them otherwise, they go on to take an adversarial stance.
“It may be that they feel so much for their clients that they do become adversarial in approach. Or it may be that some lawyers are simply adversarial in their practice.
“That is why it is important to support efforts to further train and equip family lawyers with the necessary skills – lawyers who are in tune with the needs of families and the ethos required in this new family justice system are critical to the success of our system.
“Fortunately, there are more and more lawyers who practise collaborative law and conduct their cases in a healthier, less adversarial way.”