Family Conference 2018 “Supporting, Healing, Reconstructing”
Opening Remarks from Law Society President
- Ms Indranee Rajah, SC – Second Minister for Law
- The Honourable Justice Debbie Ong – Presiding Judge, Family Justice Courts
- Deputy Presiding Judge, Chia Wee Kiat, Family Justice Courts
- Michelle Woodworth, Chair, Conference Organizing Comm and Co-Chair, FLPC.
- Distinguished Guests
- Ladies and Gentlemen
Supporting, healing, reconstructing. I am heartened by the theme of this conference. This is a superb effort by the Law Society supported by Ministry of Law together with our supporting partners, Family Justice Courts, Office of Public Guardian, MSF, Syariah Court and our three local law schools. It is the product of holistic teamwork ably organised by various internal stakeholders namely the Family Law Practice Committee, Probate Practice and Succession Planning Committee and the Muslim Law Practice Committee of the Law Society of Singapore. The practice of family law cannot be viewed in isolation. Likeminded family, probate and Muslim law practice leaders have collaborated strongly to add breadth and depth to this conference.
I am equally heartened by the registration numbers. On last count, there are 210 delegates comprising about 43 per cent senior practitioners.
In these opening remarks, let me share some thoughts on each of the sub-themes of the conference: “supporting, healing and reconstructing”.
First, supporting. Michelle spoke about the ideals of making our community a better place, one child, one family, one day at a time. How can our community support our children better? One way is through the advent and growth of child law specialists in our time. Not just well-versed with the welfare principle. But lawyers with deep expertise who can assist on:
- working out arrangements for children following family breakdowns. Lawyers serving as child representatives and parenting coordinators already play a valuable role on this;
- nuanced knowledge of social services agencies so that the right ones could be referred to best help a family in crisis;
- child protection. What do you do when a child is at risk either of family violence or abduction?
- parents’ rights vis-à-vis children; and
- children’s rights.
Quite apart from knowledge of relevant laws and regulations relating to children law, children law experts will be committed to representing the interests of children. They develop the skills and sensitivity to discern, understand and be attuned to children’s needs when representing their interests.
Another aspect of support for another important demographic in Singapore is in what some have called elder law. The first plenary of this conference will focus on “a holistic approach to legal services for the silver generation client”. Elder law practitioners have a broader base of practical legal knowledge of the mental capacity legislation (including the utility of the lasting power of attorney) as well as succession law and practice, estate planning, advance medical directive and Muslim inheritance law. Their niche expertise will translate into first-rate quality services to their client.
Some thoughts on healing. I have touched elsewhere in detail on the radical (or perhaps, not so radical idea) of lawyer as healer. Michelle has picked up a few thoughts and threads on that from a few previous speeches.
Let me be quick to add, however, that lawyers are not the only healers. There are other healers too. 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.
In the context of children, if it takes a whole village to raise a child, I suggest that it will take an entire community (parents, judges, lawyers, counsellors, case workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and others) to let a child arise in healing. It is a massive team effort.
One of the primary parties responsible for this are the parents themselves. Justice Debbie Ong in her FJC Workplan Speech earlier this year made a brilliant reference to section 46 Women’s Charter to found the spousal duty to cooperate with each other in (among others) caring for the children. That would be in a continuum that extends through to divorce settings as well.
A May 2010 Report of the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Study Report found that:
“Family relationship breakdown is the primary reason why most Ontarians enter the civil justice system … . Family relationship problems are also among the most difficult, complicated and time consuming to resolve. This reality translates into making them most disruptive to people’s daily lives and most draining on their resources.”
No comparable study in Singapore exists as far as I know. Irrespective, however, whether the first contact or entry into the civil justice system is due to a family conflict or not, family law practitioners need to do justice with compassion. To make it an all-important goal to ensure that the family conflict will not leave the client more traumatized by the time they exit the legal system.
In an article authored by Erin Shaw “Family Justice Reform, A Review of Reports and Initiatives” (15 April 2012), the author observes that in high conflict families, there is another disturbing dimension. Complicated mental health issues are often present. Linda Elrod’s article in the William Mitchell Law Review (2001) entitled “Reforming the System to Protect Children in Custody Cases” points out that in most high-conflict families, one or both parents exhibit narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, histrionic, paranoid psychotic or borderline personalities. If there are underlying mental health issues, the need for healing at the hands of appropriate professionals becomes vital.
Finally, reconstruction. One dimension of reconstruction is for a divorce litigant to reconstruct, re-author or re-story the narrative. Not in a fake and untruthful way of course. The stories we have about our lives are created through linking certain events together in a particular sequence across a time period and finding a way of explaining or making sense of them. We give meanings to our experiences constantly as we live out our lives. A narrative is like a thread that weaves the events together forming a story.
In Tjersland, “Divorce Mediation – When Stories Need To Be Rewritten” (1996, Aktiv Psykoterapi), Norwegian family therapists commented that recognising difficult feelings and working towards a story about the past that the couple can tell their family and friends may help the family move forward. The authors suggest that such a story can help and guide the adults in their future cooperation as parents.
Could there be a few ways (not just a dominant narrative) of looking at events that happened so as to reframe past events in a way to enable the parties to move on? Could this narrative be helpfully shaped by judges, lawyers and mediators? I am glad I am asking the questions and not answering them.
In conclusion, congratulations to Michelle and the conference organising committee. Echoing her speech, thank you speakers, supporters and sponsors for the unstinting dedication and invaluable contributions to this conference. Our kudos goes out to our ever reliable secretariat team spearheaded by Jean, Audrey and CPD colleagues for making this event eventuate.
To all delegates of this watershed Family Conference, I wish you a fruitful two days ahead. May each of you have an enriching learning experience from the sessions to follow and learn from each other too!