SINGAPORE: An inter—agency group is being set up to consider reforms on family justice.
The group will be made up of judges from the Supreme Court and Family Court, and representatives from the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
Opening Legal Year 2013, Singapore’s new Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the reforms should be aimed at reducing acrimony inherent in family disputes.
Taking stock of the work in the previous year and charting new targets, Chief Justice Menon emphasised the roles of the judiciary and the legal profession in upholding the rule of law.
Chief Justice Menon said: "Its essence is the assurance that no one is above the law, that everyone is answerable to it, that corruption will not be tolerated, that every citizen should have the greatest equality of opportunity, and that the ideals of our national pledge should be pursued by each citizen exerting his personal efforts, and relying on the strength of his abilities, not his race, language or religion.
"We must ensure that we do not price the law out of the reach of the average Singaporean, that we are guided by our care and concern for those whose lot it is to come face to face with the law, and that we do not allow the law to become the preserve of the rarefied few as a result of systems, processes and outputs that seem obscure or even confounding to the reasonably informed lay person."
Chief Justice Menon also emphasised the important role played by Singapore’s Subordinate Courts in the administration of justice in the country.
He said each year, nearly 350,000 cases go through the Subordinate Courts, and their achievements have been remarkable.
He added that nearly 80 per cent of criminal cases are cleared within six months, and 90 per cent of civil and family cases cleared within 18 months.
On the cards are ways to enhance the standing of the Subordinate Courts.
The Chief District Judge has some ideas like renaming it the "State Courts of Justice", and for the judges to wear robes in open court.
Chief Justice Menon said: "I have asked the Chief District Judge to consider how we can enhance the standing of his Courts. This, after all, is where most Singaporeans encounter the judicial system. The Chief District Judge has proposed a number of changes, including renaming his Courts as the State Courts of Justice, and to provide that judges wear robes in open court. He has also raised the need for more resources to ensure that all these initiatives can be effectively implemented."
Turning to family justice, Chief Justice Menon wants to see a radical shift towards a greater emphasis on counselling and mediation when resolving the majority of family disputes.
This is like having a profession of family justice practitioners who need not be lawyers, but would be trained in elements of family law, and more importantly, in counselling, psychology, mediation and conciliation.
Chief Justice Menon feels such practitioners would be sensitive to the trauma faced by those caught in a family break—up, and be committed to helping them work their way through it.
Also in the pipeline is the possibility of setting up a separate Family Justice Court to deal with the entire suite of family justice issues.
Mr N Sreenivasan, a newly—appointed Senior Counsel, said: "The marriage has broken up and obviously the parties are already on bad terms, and an adversarial system encourages confrontation.
"In issues that deal with children, at that point in time, we must remember that in a divorce, no more husband and wife, but the child still has a mother and father, and issues should be resolved with that in mind."
Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law, said: "For family law, it is very timely. For anybody who has practised family law, they will know that a lot of it is less about the law and a lot about the emotion, and how it operates on the contending spouses, and most of all on the children.
"This proposal to relook the way we do family law and the family court is a very welcomed initiative, and as CJ had mentioned, the idea really is to achieve a resolution of what are actually very difficult circumstances."
On the international arena, with the success of Singapore as an international arbitration hub, there are now plans to set up the Singapore International Commercial Court.
Ms Indranee added: "Singapore in the past 10 years has positioned itself as an international arbitration hub, and that has been very well received. And we’ve seen, people have come to see Singapore as a place for very high quality, neutral justice in the field of arbitration. I think there is a sense that Singapore can also provide a wider service through the international commercial court.
"We have the expertise here, we have the facilities, and we also are geographically in the right place. At the same time, one also has to examine how this has to be done, and the modalities.
"There isn’t a specific time frame at the moment, but it’s going to be a very exciting project and good for Singapore. It will be targeted at commercial disputes, it will have an international element, and we would have to see how we can meet the needs of the region and internationally."
Mr Harry Elias, Senior Counsel and former Law Society president, said: "Let the world come to us, it’s time we don’t go to them, they come to us. If we can institute a Commercial Bar here at the International Arbitration Centre, International Justice Centre, why not? We have the expertise, we have the infrastructure, and more important, we have the talent. It’s time we broadcast our ability."
The 2013 Legal Year opening ceremony saw the appointment of two new senior counsel.
Mr Lionel Yee and and Mr N Sreenivasan join the fold of 40 other practising senior counsel. In all, Singapore now has 54 senior counsel.
And for the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, the Law Society President and the Senior Minister of State for Law, it was their first legal year ceremony in their new portfolios.
Asked how she felt being on the government side amongst her peers, Ms Indranee said, "It’s a nice feeling coming to the opening of the Legal Year. You see many of the practitioners you have interacted before and being in the position of government. You also understand the government perspective, you also know how they feel as practitioners and the various stakeholders, so it is my hope and wish that in the months and years to come, we would be able to do something good for the profession and the rule of law in Singapore."
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