The New Family Practice
The Family Justice Practice Forum held in July 2017 highlighted the changing roles of family lawyers to peacemakers and constructive family lawyers.
This is not only a clear indication of shedding off the cloaks of litigation but offering novel, interesting and even challenging ways for family lawyers to innovate their practice. The timely focus on social sciences to understand issues relating to the effects of divorce on children and their development is refreshing and educational to family lawyers. The importance family lawyers place on acquiring soft skills in family mediation, collaborative family practice, child representation, parent co-ordination and cross-border family mediation can be seen in the well subscribed trainings over the last three years.
Creating awareness and receiving training is just the beginning of the new journey in family lawyering. The change of mindsets and the willingness to change the traditional practice of family law is the next big step for the Family Bar to take.
Traditional family litigation still remains and will remain, as not all divorces can be amicable divorces. However, the shift to assisting clients to achieve amicable divorces out of court is slowly growing traction. There still remains anecdotally an emphasis on litigation first and resolution later, if possible, by a section in the Bar.
How serious are we in achieving amicable divorces for our clients or are we just paying lip service to show appearances to keep up with the current judicial trends in amicable dispute resolution? Admittedly, the shift from litigation is difficult and the concern over a drop in revenue is worrying for lawyers.
A full time career as mediators or collaborative family lawyers seems like a very distant career goal now. Having spoken to American family collaborative and mediation lawyers over the last five years, I have learnt that it is a risk they took. They made a decision that they were not going to court. They slowly took less litigation cases and moved to doing more non-adversarial work.
These lawyers, including younger Australian and Canadian lawyers, took a few years to make the career switch. These men and women have shown that they can have successful careers, just as litigation lawyers seemingly do.
Locally, only Senior Counsel George Lim is known to have a full-time mediation practice. Besides the judicial shift, much can be done to create public awareness on how lawyers can achieve amicable divorces.
In his inspiring closing remarks at the Forum, President Gregory Vijayendran referred to family lawyers as healers. He also proposed setting up of multi-disciplinary family law practices. The family law eco-system does not only consist of lawyers and judges, but also mediators, child representatives, parent co-ordinators, divorce coaches (as counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists are known in the United States) and financial advisers who offer divorce financial planning as is done in the States.
We are at the beginning of a long road. It is no more about advocacy or training. It is time to create a road map on how to help divorcing couples, the children who are caught between their parents and the court system and to create a new family practice.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development, the Family Justice Courts and the Family Bar now must collaborate and become cohesive travel partners on this journey.
Create nationwide public awareness on how to salvage rocky marriages or to achieve amicable divorces. Establish a multi-disciplinary family practice where lawyers, mental health professionals and amicable dispute professionals can work together to assist couples. Instead of attempting mediation after proceedings are commenced in court, pre-court mediation can be included as part of the current Mandatory Parenting Programme before a spouse can file for divorce.
One of the major difficulties which clients and lawyers face during divorce proceedings is the high conflict the couple is in which affects their children and the conduct of court proceedings. Counselling must be extended beyond resolving child issues. Lawyers and the Court can work together to identify the specific issues faced by the clients and orders for counselling till the end of the divorce proceedings or when the emotional issues are resolved can be made.
It took us a long time to get to this current stage in the family legal system. I hope the next stage of our journey can start sooner or even now.