SINGAPORE – Breaking up is hard to do, and couples thinking of divorce may get more help to consider if they want to go ahead. And if they do, the process could be made less painful for themselves and their children.

A committee has made recommendations to help couples be more informed on financial, housing and other divorce-related issues before they officially call it quits.

It also hopes to get more couples to seek counselling and mediation before they file for divorce and to improve existing help programmes for divorcing couples.

The Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF Committee) has come up with recommendations in three key areas: Upstream support for couples considering divorce; enhancing the family justice system; and more support for persons without mental capacity and their caregivers.

The committee, which was formed in November 2017, submitted its recommendations to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Ministry of Law.

It is building on the work of the Committee for Family Justice, which culminated in the enactment of the Family Justice Act and establishment of the Family Justice Courts in 2014.

The Government will review the proposed recommendations, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee at Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre on Thursday (Sept 19).

To support couples considering divorce, enhancements to the existing Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) were proposed.

The MPP is a consultation session held before parents, who have children below 21 years old, file for divorce.

The committee suggested that the programme expands to include self-help functions such as self-assessments on marital satisfaction, child safety and personal safety, as well as tools to better understand bread-and-butter matters after divorce.

Last year, 7,344 marriages ended in a divorce or annulment, a 3.1 per cent drop from 2017.

A consolidated online platform was also proposed for pre-filing services and relevant information, such as housing and financial matters.

The committee also suggested encouraging the use of counselling and mediation before couples file for divorce through greater awareness of available services, and schemes for affordable services, to resolve disputes earlier and prevent further escalation of conflict.

It also called for strengthening the capabilities of professionals providing divorce support.

MSF also announced on Thursday that it had appointed two new divorce support specialist agencies – Thrive Parenting! under Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre and Healing Hearts @ Fei Yue – to better support families undergoing divorce, adding to the four existing ones.

The appointments, which took effect on Aug 1, were to expand support services in different regions for more accessibility, said MSF.

These agencies provide programmes that include counselling and workshops for parents before or after divorce, as well as for children to learn to cope and share their feelings post-divorce.

In terms of enhancing the family justice system, it was proposed to clarify and enhance the scope of judges’ power in family court proceedings such that they will proceed more justly, expeditiously and economically.

For example, this would mean more certainty in giving the courts discretion to conduct hearings based on filed papers without needing families or their counsel to attend court, or restricting cross-examinations in situations such as victims of domestic violence in order to protect them from being re-traumatised, or if the witness was deemed unnecessary.

Recommendations were also made for the Family Justice Rules to be simplified for more timely and affordable procedures. This would make it easier for an applicant to commence action, for example, reducing the number of ways to start proceedings, simplifying the words and structures of documents, and digitalising them. It would be less costly if an applicant did not need a lawyer for the proceedings, or if delays from the complexity are minimised.

In cases where an ex-spouse blocks a divorced parent from seeing their child post-divorce, the committee proposed to broaden the enforcement regime for child access orders to promote compliance, and to facilitate access to more affordable legal services for improved access to justice.

Additional enforcement tools include parental education; co-mediation with a judge-mediator and court family specialist; the compensation of certain expenses and lost access time; and a bond ordered to secure compliance.

The committee also made several suggestions to safeguard the interests of persons without mental capacity, and assist their caregivers. This comes as the population ages, and more elderly people may lose their mental capacity through illnesses such as dementia.

The committee suggested that the deputyship application process be made simpler and more affordable for those who need such powers.

A deputy is a court-appointed individual who is granted specific powers by the Court to make decisions for the benefit and welfare of the person who lacks mental capacity, such as for personal needs and financial affairs.

This is for cases where the person has not already applied for the power of attorney before becoming mentally incapacitated.

Training and support for appointed and prospective deputies were proposed for them to better understand their role and obligations, such as an online training programme and an assessment component.

The committee also recommended the use of counselling and mediation to resolve disputes and better support deputies who may face caregiver stress.

Also proposed was the enhancement of the Office of the Public Guardian’s supervision of deputies so that appropriate intervention can be undertaken for challenging cases.

The committee also proposed building up the capabilities of professionals in the social sector to better support the caregivers of those without mental capacity.

This includes a Family Lawyer certification scheme launched by 2020 and a Family Specialist Accreditation (Divorce and Child) launched by 2021, for family law lawyers.

The committee also suggested developing a targeted and specialised curriculum for family judges.

The RERF Committee is co-chaired by presiding judge of the Family Justice Courts Justice Debbie Ong; Permanent Secretary for Law Ng How Yue; and Permanent Secretary for Social and Family Development Chew Hock Yong.

Members of the public are invited to give their feedback on the Government’s e-consultation Reach portal from Sept 20 to Nov 1, said Mr Lee.