Lawyers play important role in divorce, family proceedings
I would caution against dismissing or downplaying the role of lawyers in divorce and other family-related proceedings (Limit role of lawyers in family justice system, by Mr Peter Ong Teck Sin; Jan 20).
Issues of alimony, maintenance and custody, while best arrived at amicably through a “kitchen table” negotiation or a mediation session, have legal implications as well.
Lawyers provide their clients with advice that is relevant, useful and even game-changing. They can offer a legal perspective on the implications and outcomes a divorce presents, to help clients arrive at an agreement without going to court.
This saves costs for clients, reduces the emotional impact of trial and cuts time taken for parties to move on with their respective lives. That, too, is ethical lawyering, and I have had the pleasure of seeing that frequently in the mediation practice.
There are also circumstances where trial work is inevitable and even necessary; lawyers are irreplaceable and their involvement is as much about advocacy as it is about access to justice.
We must shift away from the discourse of what must stop being done, to what needs to be done to support families undergoing a divorce.
Marriages, not families, end in divorce, and a systemic approach to divorce must involve counsellors in the work of discernment therapy – where clients are brought through a decision-making process to decide what they need to do next.
This would then lead to marriage closure therapy – where couples therapeutically end their relationship well, dealing with the associated blame, responsibility, grief and parenting issues.
Counselling does not solve all problems either. A suitable and sensitive mediation process that provides space for emotions yet focuses on resolving the bread-and-butter divorce issues is essential.
Instead of “limiting” the family lawyer’s role in a divorce, let us expand it beyond the stereotypical litigation duties.
The Family Bar has been involved in training and equipping lawyers in various skills and disciplines that can help divorcing couples. This is commendable and a step in the right direction.
What we need next is to educate the public that a divorce is not a situation where children are pawns and lawyers are hired guns. A more holistic understanding is necessary.
While the focus is on the best interest of the child, that outcome can be achieved only when parents choose to set aside their differences, end a painful chapter well and move on to a partnership in raising their children.
I urge and encourage lawyers to continue this arduous journey of ensuring that children do not inherit the legacy of their parents’ pain, and society does not fracture because of our broken relationships.
Lai Mun Loon
Head, Professional Services
Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre
This article was featured in The Straits Times forum on 22 January 2018.