Family justice must put welfare and fairness first
By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware)
We support the recommendation by the Committee for Family Justice for specialist agencies to be set up to offer information, advice, counselling and support to those undergoing divorce (“Less painful divorces under new system”; July 5).
Our experience assisting women indicates that the legal processes are often stressful and confusing to the layperson.
These agencies must be sensitive to marital abuse and intimidation, including physical, psychological, social and financial abuse.
In such cases, we disagree with the committee that couples should undergo pre-filing consultation or mediation. Requiring joint attendance jeopardises the victims’ well-being.
The committee’s desire to “focus the parties on the children’s interest” can be fulfilled without forcing victims to enter unsafe spaces – for instance, through separate consultation sessions.
Overall, agencies should take a secular approach, committed first and foremost to the welfare of clients. Victims of domestic violence are often reluctant to leave an abusive relationship because of the widespread judgment that divorce is a personal failure or a moral ill. The agencies should support clients in prioritising their safety and avoid adding to societal pressures.
We also agree that litigants in the Syariah Court should have access to services provided under the State Court system, such as child welfare services and support for those facing violence. It is important to ensure that resources are available to the Syariah Court to prevent a two-tier system.
Lastly, it is unfair to limit maintenance claims by men to situations of incapacity. Existing criteria – including income, earning capacity, contributions to the household and financial need – can apply equally to claims by men. However, in practice, awards to women should be more common as a larger proportion of women (43 per cent) than men (1.8 per cent) who are economically inactive are in this position due to domestic responsibilities.
Moreover, judges must be alert to the potential effect of societal attitudes on their assessments. There is a danger that women’s domestic labour is given less credit because it is seen as “natural”, while similar efforts by men are unfairly perceived as a more significant sacrifice.
Maintenance assessments should also consider that women are more likely to be pressured by spouses and families to leave the formal workforce. However, these are not reasons to deny relief to men in deserving cases.
This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 2 August 2014.