The Family Lawyer as Family Healer
(Closing Address, Family Conference 2021 on 29 September 2021)
Deputy Presiding Judge, Family Justice Courts, Judge Chia Wee Kiat
Registrar, Family Justice Courts, Judge Kenneth Yap
Chairpersons, Organising Committee 2021 Family Conference, Ms Kee Lay Lian and Ms Wong Kai Yun
Distinguished Guests, Friends, Law Society Members
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to deliver the closing address in what has been an exhilarating two-day ride for all participants in this 2021 Family Conference organised by Law Society. This year’s edition has featured local and international legal luminaries in family justice. Kudos to the Family Law Practice Committee, Probate Practice Committee and the Muslim Law Practice Committee, a tried and tested triumvirate who have together achieved their latest triumphant entry into the Law Society marquee conferences of note.
Yesterday featured “Big Questions in a Small World: International Issues in Singapore Family Practice”. It opened with Minister Edwin Tong SC’s Keynote Address in the morning. Our 2nd Minister for Law breezed through a brilliant burst of historical fireworks through to insightful modern day multidisciplinary insights and fast forwarded to flag a few cutting edge family law issues of the future. This was followed by the CJ Koh Lecture “60 Years of the Women’s Charter and 10 Years of the International Child Abduction Act – Evolution of Quintessential Singapore Family Law Principles Through Case Law” delivered with erudition by Justice Judith Prakash, Honourable Judge of the Court of Appeal.
This morning’s proceedings kickstarted with our chief architect of therapeutic justice, the Honourable Justice Debbie Ong, Presiding Judge, Family Justice Courts. Day two today delved into the unique challenges and opportunities presented to the family lawyer in Singapore in the ongoing pursuit of the pivotal therapeutic justice in family disputes. It has touched on among other things, mindsets and skillsets and in the session that just preceded us, alternative dispute resolution options as a shift in family law dispute resolution. In these concluding remarks, I will take the opportunity to add some broad perspectives on today’s topic of therapeutic justice.
I have shared in a few previous settings about the paradigm shift of a lawyer as a healer. Let me bring this closer to home in a context-specific way for the Family Bar. I make three propositions that I propose to unpack briefly.
- The family lawyer heals families.
- Family lawyers are not the only family healers.
- Family lawyers and other family care professionals are a team of healers.
The Family Lawyer Heals Families
The first proposition is less radical when I first shared it in 2017.1“The Lawyer As Healer”, President’s Message in Singapore Law Gazette, November 2017 edition, It is unique to the specialised practice of family law which is family-focussed. Family lawyers can heal through the power of our words. Life and death are in the power of the tongue. As peacemaker, mediator, healer, reconciler and restorer, many family lawyers here are healing directly through your family law practice. I accept that healing is not necessarily synonymous with reconciliation in every case. Sometimes, the glass cup that has fallen and broken cannot be restored back to its glorious past save for a miracle. But within the brokenness and fragmentation of families with sharp shards that have potential to wound, the family lawyer can bring the lens of care of therapeutic justice that PJFC Debbie Ong has clearly elucidated and championed. In Justice Debbie Ong’s Family Justice Courts Workplan 2020:
“43. What is this concept called Therapeutic Justice or TJ? It is a lens of ‘care”, a lens through which we can look at the extent to which substantive rules, laws, legal procedures, practices, as well as the roles of the legal participants, produce helpful or harmful consequences. We must build the ‘hardware’ structure and the ‘software’ resources that will ensure therapeutic, helpful effects.”
“50. Therapeutic Justice seeks to address the family’s inter-related legal and non-legal issues to reach an outcome that improves the whole family’s functioning beyond breakdown. Parties should be assisted with developing their skills to resolve their own disputes, to co-parent after divorce, to be familiar with how to access appropriate support services. Family lawyers must problem-solve as a team especially where children’s interests are at stake. The role of the family lawyer has changed. The bulk of family work will be in advising parties well, helping them to make good decisions right from the early stages, and reach agreements that are reasonable, fair, workable durable and good for the children.”
“51. When we adopt Therapeutic Justice in our system, we also endeavour to assist parties in acquiring the skills they need to manage their lives ahead – how to manage conflict, how to co-parent, and how to access appropriate support services in future. It is forward-looking.”
So the divorce journey does not have to lead to more brokenness, fragmentation and additional shards with potential to wound. It can be interwoven with compassion, conciliation and conflict management. As empathetic legal professionals, we can journey alongside with these families. A gentle answer can turn away anger. When we look beyond words spoken by people (including clients), we can discern and decode the emotions that underlie them. One law firm in US has brought this to a whole new level with Holistic Law. Iglesia Martell Law Firm, PLLC has the tagline “Transforming the Law One Day at a Time – By Practicing from the Heart” I have written about Angie Martell’s insights in the November 2017 Gazette President’s Message entitled “The Lawyer As Healer”. To add a few more observations from her law firm:
“’Holistic’ … is a movement occurring among judges and lawyers to bring that same concept to the legal community to support an approach to the legal practice that reflects our wholeness by finding healthier ways to resolve legal matters by transitioning and promoting peacekeeping and healing within the legal profession.”
“Holistic Law is practice that focuses on the whole person and the whole of the problem as a way of finding more healthy and sustainable solutions to legal problems.”2https://iglesiamartell.com/holistic-law/ on Iglesia Martell Law Firm, PLLC “Holistic Law”, “Transforming the Law One Day at a Time – By Practicing From the Heart”
Focussing on the whole person and the whole of the problems. Isn’t that what we are trying to do with Therapeutic Justice? In case anyone thinks Holistic Law is only sexy marketing or skilful branding, there is in fact an International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers as well. So this is not idiosyncratic.
Another dimension of healing is indirect healing. Family lawyers can also heal families is through indirect healing. Indirect healing comes about because of honest, soul-searching, truth-seeking questions are asked by family lawyers of their clients to penetrate into the heart of the matter. These questions are analogous to cauterization in surgical procedure (nowadays more in electrocautery or chemical cautery) where a part of the body is burnt to mitigate bleeding and damage, remove undesired growth or minimize other potential medical harm. By asking the right questions during the forensic inquiry of the case, that can burn into memories distorted by emotions and remove false narratives. It can bring reflection and healing. All of us are trained as lawyers to ask good and great questions in the courtroom. It often begins in the couches and armchairs of our office meeting rooms. Through the judge-led approach, the judges themselves will ultimately ask the right questions that cut through to the core of a case.
Family Lawyers are Not the Only Family Healers
My second proposition is that family lawyers are not the only family healers. This too, like the first proposition, is intuitive. I had expounded on this in my speech during the Family Conference 2018 “Supporting Healing, Reconstructing” Through the role of counsellors, social workers, psychologists, and other skilled, specialist professionals, there are different nuanced roles that each professional play. Playing to our skills and strengths, we can, in our own way, be responsible for healing different facets of the broken family. Once a case is filed in the family justice system, the judge becomes the chief physician and the lead surgeon. One dimension of our role as advocates is to cooperate with the lead surgeon for a successful operation on the patients i.e. the wounded spouses and children.
Practically, I consider we need to do more to construct constructive conversation with other healing professions. Sometimes, we can be caught in our own world and think silo and solo. We do not know what other professionals are saying and doing; let alone, appreciate the unique roles and responsibilities they have in (i) de-escalating conflict; (ii) deploying specialist skillsets to build resilience and coping strategies as families walk through the storm. I encourage our FLPC team to build bridges of dialogue with SASW, SAC, DSSAs, etc. We will see three things. First, we can bring about optimal and multifaceted healing. Second, we will avoid fragmented family legal care for hurting family members and children caught in between conflict. Third, we move beyond a superficial understanding of the roles of the other family healers in the ecosystem. And we will then discern that they are not different from us but differentiators like us
In our present day COVID-19 pandemic turned endemic Singapore, there is also a risk of declining mental health due to the long tail of the crisis of a generation and the only certainty being uncertainty. According to the ST Report on 27 September, based on an online survey of 1,000 respondents, 76 per cent of the respondents feel sad or depressed. This may explain the angst and anger that some of us feel and some of us may get the brunt of when dealing with clients and counterparties. It is also the space of grace that we need to extend. What is true of economics is true of mental wellness too. Not everyone has been impacted equally. Some have it worse than others. Worse still, if mental wellness moves to mental health issues. And yet, at the same time, cautious that we need to be self-aware about depression, compassion fatigue and even vicarious trauma.
Family Lawyers and Other Family Care Professionals are a Team of Healers
Third and final proposition. Family lawyers and other family care professionals are a team of healers. The emphasis here is teamwork that makes the dream work. We are a team. A team drawing from different disciplines but with one goal : to heal one family at a time. A discernment I have gained from serving on the Tribunal of Maintenance of Parents is how in some cases, children nurse a grudge or grievance about the way a parent (usually a father) treated their caregiving parent after the marriage broke up. We know the well-known saying from Dr Dorothy Law Nolte:
Children Learn What They Live
If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.
If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.
Longitudinal studies are needed to verify this but I would submit to you that the long-term effect on children cannot be understated or underrated for one second. There is a multi-generational impact and implication involved depending on how divorces are handled.
To work effectively and synergistically together, we need to adopt a collaborative model which is complementary and complimentary in the sense of being respectful of each others’ roles. Yet humble and discerning to know what is the best wisdom of the moment. I saw this prototype in a legal clinic setting I had touched on previously in my 2018 speech:
“A legal clinic that I served in featured an interesting “bi-disciplinary partnership” of lawyer and counsellor. A fellow volunteer who started his legal counselling session realized five minutes into the session that the attendee was undergoing depression. He stopped and the counsellor then started.” 3Family Conference 2018, Opening Remarks, “Supporting, Healing, Reconstructing” published in the Singapore Law Gazette, May 2018 edition
The best wisdom of that moment was that of the counsellor not the lawyer. The right wisdom at the right time by the right professional must prevail. Lawyers have our role, a rich result of our unique training and experience, but we are not the only healers and are part of a multidisciplinary team of healers. More certainly needs to be done to move from conversation (as per my practical suggestion on the second point) to move towards collaboration with like-minded professionals. We can co-create a holistic healing family care plan when we view everyone around the table as part of the solution and not the problem. Another way of looking at this is diversity and inclusiveness of professional and specialist perspectives but unified with one purpose: To heal wounded and broken families one at a time.
In conclusion, family lawyers, I trust we have received not just information and knowledge today but insights, reflections and practical pointers. These will shape, inform and guide your practices to be the family legal care physicians of the 21st century. And as we do, perhaps, we will come closer to the classic, aspirational words of H. Jackson Brown Junior who said:
“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you.”
|↑1||“The Lawyer As Healer”, President’s Message in Singapore Law Gazette, November 2017 edition,|
|↑2||https://iglesiamartell.com/holistic-law/ on Iglesia Martell Law Firm, PLLC “Holistic Law”, “Transforming the Law One Day at a Time – By Practicing From the Heart”|
|↑3||Family Conference 2018, Opening Remarks, “Supporting, Healing, Reconstructing” published in the Singapore Law Gazette, May 2018 edition|