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Justice Debbie Ong: Speech delivered at the Family Justice Courts Workplan 2023

 Family Justice Courts Workplan 2023 

"Keep it up!"


Justice Debbie Ong 
Presiding Judge
Family Justice Courts

Chief Justice, Fellow Judges and all my colleagues and guests,

Welcome to FJC’s Workplan Day and thank you very much for being here this morning.

1. This is our first Workplan since 2019 where we can gather physically together. Our past three Workplans were held virtually (imagine that – three Workplans held remotely!). I am very glad to see you here in a “real way” (in flesh and blood).

2. When I was preparing for today’s address, I looked at what the themes of the past few Workplans were. Here they are:

2018: “In the Next Phase”

2019: “Every Outcome, a Way Forward”

2020: “Today is a New Day”

2021: “A New Tomorrow”

2022: “Let’s Go”

2023: “Keep it Up!”

3. All these Workplan themes had one thing in common – it was always about moving … moving … forward, looking ahead. That is the very core of our family justice system: helping families to find a way forward, with the hope of a positive future.

4. This year, our theme is “Keep it Up!” It is a time we say to each other: it has been quite a journey (which included covid times) and we have certainly moved – a lot – to where we are today – to an FJC that is so rich in hope, rich in passion and commitment to our mission, and so rich too in camaraderie and friendships.

5. “Keep it Up!” sends a message to all of us in the family justice system – our judges, court staff, lawyers, and partner agencies – a message of gratitude for the hard work put in, and a call to keep at a journey which is well worth every bit of our time, for we are helping families and children in their path to healing and a new future.

6. Let me start with sharing some information on the work we do in FJC.

7. Let us take a brief look at some statistics. This slide shows FJC’s caseload. Our caseload increased by 3% in 2022, despite a 21% fall in Youth Court cases. The increase is mainly contributed by the 17% rise in probate cases. We note though, that the increase in the probate cases is only slightly greater than the 16% increase from 2020 to 2021.

FJC - Caseload 

Caseload  2020  2021  2022  2021 vs 2022
 Total   25,476  26,560   27,313   Increase by 3%
 Maintenance   3,198  2 ,827  2,744  Decrease by 3%
 Family Violence   2,456  2,144  2,215  Increase by 3%
 Divorce   6,016  6,159  6,104  Decrease by 1%
 Originating Summonses   1,148  1,169   1,219   Increase by 4%
 Summonses  4,512  4,943   4,587   Decrease by 7%
 Probate   7,006  8,119  9,492  Increase by 17%
 Youth Courts   1,140  1,199  952  Decrease by 21%

(Note: 2022 figures are subject to revision.)

8. This slide shows FJC’s disposition rate. The clear increase in the disposition rate reflects the concerted efforts of our teams. The marginal dip of 1% in the disposition rate for probate cases is likely attributable to the sharp rise in probate caseload that I had mentioned in the last Slide.

FJC Disposition Rate 

Disposition Rates (more than or equals to 85%)
(Calendar Days)
 2020 2021 2022   2021 vs 2022 
 Maintenance Cases
(6 months to First Conclusion)
 88%  90%   93%  Increased by 3% 
 Family Violence Cases
(6 months to First Conclusion)
 86%  91%   93%   Increased by 2%
 Youth Court Charges
(3 months to Conclusion)
 81%  72%  78%  Increased by 6%
 Divorce Cases
(6 months to Interim Judgment)
 90%  93%  93%  -
 Divorce Cases
(12 months to Conclusion)
 93%  93%  94%   Increased by 1%
 Probate Cases
(3 months to Conclusion)
 96%  97%  96%  Decreased by 1%

9. This slide shows statistics relating to divorce. The number of divorces has been stable over the past few years. There is also a consistent increase in the proportion of divorce applications filed under the simplified track. This is a good sign that our efforts in encouraging and helping divorcing parties to resolve their affairs amicably, are bearing fruit. 

FJC - Divorce 

Year 2020  2021   2022  2020 vs 2021 
 Number of Divorces   6,016   6,159  6,104  Decreased by 1% 
 - % on Simplified Track   60%  63%   66%  Increased by 3% 
 - % with Children less than 21 years   51%  50%   49%  Decreased by 1%

(*Note: Data is extracted from eLitigation and accurate as at end December 2022.)

10. I move next to our work plans that fall into our three broad strategic thrusts.

11. In Workplan 2020, we presented the plans for “Today is a New Day!”. We outlined our aspirations and commitment to adopting Therapeutic Justice (“TJ” for short). In the two years that followed, in 2021 and 2022, we were in the “implementation phase” for many of our initiatives, where we translated our ideas into real-world solutions and fine-tuned them along the way.

12. Our work plans this year will continue through the three strategic thrusts that we embarked on in 2020. The three workstreams are:

  1. Furthering TJ in a Multi-Disciplinary Environment;
  2. Facilitating Court Processes, Settlement, and Enforcement – this is really a focus on Access to Justice; and
  3. Fortifying Judges’ and Lawyers’ Capacity and Capability.
13. But before going on to share further on our various work initiatives, I’ll like to pause here, take a step back, and recall some of the things that have brought us to where we are today.

14. First, a little history on our Family justice system. I had shared this in my speech at the World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights.

15. Our very first form of the ‘Family Court’ was established in March 1995 as one of the divisions in the then Subordinate Courts of Singapore. It handled cases relating to maintenance, family violence and adoption.

16. The next year, in 1996, jurisdiction to hear matters relating to guardianship, custody, nullity, divorce and ancillary matters was transferred from the High Court to the Family Court. In the same year, an in-house court counselling unit was set up.

17. In March 2002, the Family and Juvenile Justice Centre (“FJJC”), was established. The FJJC’s multi-disciplinary team included Social Workers, Counsellors, Psychologists and Mediators. In 2009, FJJC’s psychological and counselling unit was rebranded as the Counselling and Psychological Services or ‘CAPS’ for short.

18. In 2008, the CHILD Programme was launched. CHILD was the acronym for the ‘Children’s Best Interests, Less Adversarial’ programme. The programme aimed to achieve a less adversarial and more expeditious hearing of disputes involving children, with an intentional focus on the best interests of the child. The CHILD Court was effective, but resources could not sustain its long term use.

19. In January 2011, Parliament amended the Women’s Charter to provide for mandatory counselling and mediation for divorcing couples with minor children.

20. In September 2011, the Child Focused Resolution Centre (“CFRC”) was set up. Judge-Mediators, Counsellors and Court Administrators worked within the CFRC where there were minor children.

21. So you can see that the court was very progressive many years ago – the vision to have a specialised family court and the efforts at having a multi-disciplinary system began almost three decades ago.

22. In 2013, our Chief Justice appointed a Committee to review the family justice system in Singapore. The acrimonious litigation of family disputes was a problem that needed to be addressed. Following the recommendations of this Committee’s Report, the Family Justice Courts was established in October 2014.

23. The reforms arising from the 2013 Report were reviewed for further enhancement in 2018 by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System, called “RERF” for convenience. As Presiding Judge, I co-chaired this committee together with the Permanent Secretaries of the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Social and Family Development. The inter-agency character of this committee enabled wider enhancements to be made in an area which needed a multi-disciplinary approach beyond legal remedies.

24. In 2020, I shared the Workplan of FJC to adopt a non-adversarial system which delivers Therapeutic Justice. Our efforts had been on-going for years, and the time was right for this big transformation to take place.

25. Later that same year, the Court of Appeal held that Therapeutic Justice is not merely an ideal; it is a necessity and is intensely practical.

26. In the decision of VDZ v VEA(1), Justice Andrew Phang made a reference to FJC’s Workplan to adopt Therapeutic Justice, and explained:

Relationships constitute the very pith and marrow of a family. When family relationships break down, those relationships are damaged. Such damage cannot be repaired completely by material recompense; healing needs to take place. Healing cannot even begin to take place if the parties are in an antagonistic relationship – still less when parties wage war against each other. A kind act begets a kind response while a nasty act inflames the other …

27. The Court of Appeal continued(2)

“… what occurred in the present case was an extreme example of such warfare. The consequences of such an approach are negative in at least two ways.

First … healing cannot even begin to take place. And without such healing, the parties and their children will find it extremely difficult, … to move forward with their respective lives.

Second, the damage that results will impact not only the former spouses but also the children. … The parties and the court always act in the best interests of the child – phrased as a legal principle, the welfare of the child (or children) is paramount. … In this case, it was unfortunate that the children were forced to pick sides and turned against their father, with whom they previously had a healthy relationship.…

However, the wonderful thing about life is that it is never too late. We would urge the mother to reflect seriously on her life as well as future actions.... We hope that she can put aside her negative attitude and emotions and encourage the children to restore their relationship with their father. …It undoubtedly requires courage to take this positive step on behalf of the children….”

28. This passage in the Court of Appeal’s judgment highlights what it might take to uphold the child’s welfare: the child’s bests interests is intimately entwined with the proper discharge of parental responsibility. I say this again: the child’s bests interests is intimately entwined with the proper discharge of parental responsibility.

29. The Court of Appeal was fully aware of the depth of acrimony of the parties but still exhorted them that it is never too late, and both parents should take courage and do what is needed for the sake of the children.

30. The core legal principle in family disputes is that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration. Often, parties themselves or through their lawyers, seeking orders over the children, know this welfare principle very well. They cite the welfare principle to the court to support their arguments, for example, that it is in the welfare of the child to spend more time with them and not the other parent. How often have I heard arguments that it is in the child’s welfare not to let the other parent have too much time with the child.

31. I think that the welfare principle has been bandied about so much in such ways that it has lost its true meaning. What is its true meaning? I explain what I mean by referring to the following case.

32. The case of VDX v VDY(3) was a High Court decision involving cross-appeals that revolved around only two narrow issues, but I discuss only one issue, which is: Which parent, the Mother or the Father, should spend dinner time with their youngest child on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Chinese New Year Reunion dinner is an important family tradition and of great significance to those who celebrate Chinese New Year. In the lower court, the judge took a pragmatic approach and ordered that the child could have an earlier dinner with the Mother, before joining the dinner at the Father’s home later at 8.30 pm.

33. On appeal, both parties argued that the judge’s order was not workable. Both submitted that the child and his siblings should not commute between two dinners, and that the judge failed to give due weight to the acrimony between the parents which made this arrangement untenable.

34. The High Court held that:

The issues, whether resolved in the way the Mother proposed, or in the manner the Father sought, would not significantly affect the welfare of the child. What would significantly affect the child’s welfare is the parents’ conflicts and the spirit in which they carry out the orders. If the arrangements are carried out by each parent with the intent to ruin the time that the other parent has with the child, then the child’s welfare is being undermined. On the other hand, either of the arrangements proposed by the parents, if carried out with a supportive and cooperative spirit, could and would go well, and promote C’s welfare.

The child’s welfare isn’t only about where she eats her dinner and how her week is physically split up between the parents, it is so much more than that – it is very much about the spirit in which both parents discharge their parental responsibility. Either arrangements suggested for Chinese New Year’s Eve will work if the parents are determined to make them work.

35. The discharge of parental responsibility is critical to the welfare of the child. I said earlier: the child’s bests interests is intimately entwined with the proper discharge of parental responsibility. Here we come to the biggest challenge that faces us: can we compel parents to properly discharge their responsibility in a true spirit of cooperation?

36. Obviously being a good co-parent by having a supportive and cooperative spirit isn’t something the court can simply order – well, the court can direct: “Parents shall cooperate”, but getting the parents to fully cooperate in spirit isn’t best achieved by a command, just as a court cannot compel A to love B, or even order a parent to love her child.

37. So what can we do? Naysayers may be skeptical about trying to achieve a decent amount of co-parenting behaviour when parties are knee-deep in acrimony. They may say: “the parties resent each other, that is why they are divorcing, they cannot cooperate, so get real, be realistic and just make court orders and send them off.” Those may be the words of naysayers. What do we say?

38. If parental responsibility is integral to the child’s welfare, the way forward is to put in place a family justice system that compels the discharge of parental responsibility in s 46 of the Women’s Charter. S 46(1) mandates that parents “are mutually bound to co-operate with each other … in caring and providing for the children”, even after a divorce.

39. Our system has to first remove the incentive for parents to wage war, to say nasty things about the other. Then, in addition to usual court rules and procedures, it has to put in place other things, to address the underlying issues that make cooperation difficult, to put in place TJ processes that support or even inspire parties to behave better.

40. So we do not just retain the adversarial system and simply order the parents to cooperate. We educate, we equip, we provide the support services and build a system that is conducive for problem-solving without waging war. When we have provided such support, we can demand better behaviour from the parties.

41. So this is where we are today.

42. I had shared that for more than two decades in the history of our family justice system, counselling and psychological support services and mediation have always been provided as part of the family’s divorce journey in the Family Court. Back when I was a law professor, before joining the Bench, I volunteered as a family court mediator in 1999 for about a decade. But such mediation and counselling were all provided within an adversarial system of litigation. The adversarial system can undermine healing and the therapeutic aims of therapeutic support services. The two must align.

43. So now, having started a lot of work in building our TJ software, we must take on the task of building our TJ hardware. This involves a major shift in mindset and in systemic changes. I call on all of us to give to this effort the same commitment you have given to all our FJC work, with unity of spirit and determination to see our aspirations fulfilled. FJC has achieved so much in transformative ways because I see in so many of us, the commitment to do things well and make things work, because you believe our work matters to our families.

44. We work to continue this momentum both within and beyond the court system. Within the court system, we have engaged a team of consultants for a TJ “Deep Dive” to help us develop a roadmap to implement our TJ vision for family proceedings.

45. Over the past months, the consultants have spoken to internal stakeholders about our understanding of “TJ”.

46. Among the ideas that have emerged is having the majority of cases resolved by mediation and counselling, with the small remainder sent for adjudication. And even where adjudication is necessary, it should be conducted in a problem-solving way that eschews provocation and acrimony.

47. I thank you deeply for your enthusiastic engagement with the consultants and for the ideas and feedback that you have provided. As judges and court officers, you see and hear the families in the court system every day, and you understand very well the concerns that they bear and the challenges that they face. You appreciate the benefits that TJ brings to them. Your feedback will be most valuable in our endeavours to crafting TJ procedures and practices.

48. Now I will get back to our three workstreams and highlight our ongoing work and future plans under these three strategic thrusts.

Furthering TJ in a Multi-Disciplinary Environment

49. We have intentionally adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to our work in dispensing family justice. In the past few years, we have worked hard with partner agencies to bring in expertise from across a variety of disciplines.

50. We set up an Advisory and Research Council, the ARC, so that we can draw on the expertise of international thought-leaders in the area of therapeutic justice. Various members of the ARC provided training to the family judges in TJ methods at our Family Judges’ Learning Weeks. They also helped us in developing a common TJ language.

51. Another initiative is our Multi-Disciplinary Teams pilot, where we managed high-needs / high-conflict cases with the collective wisdom of judges, mediators, counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

52. Through our TJ Codes of Conduct and Best Practice Guides, we expound standards of conduct through a TJ lens for judges, lawyers, court administrators and litigants to create a TJ culture with standards and expectations for all participants including the parties themselves.

53. Through our Panel of Financial Experts and Panel of Therapeutic Specialists, we enlist top professionals in finance, mental health, and social science in the private sector to help distressed families to resolve the complex needs and issues that underlie their legal disputes.

54. Beyond the court system, we will continue to improve the integration of community services and referral channels in family proceedings. We are reviewing and identifying the services that distressed families require and looking to build bridges with the professional communities that provide such services.

55. We are also studying the viability of locating such services in our new premises at the Octagon.

56. Much of our discourse on TJ has centred around families involved in divorce proceedings. This is not surprising, given the volume of divorce proceedings that we manage in FJC. But the work of FJC is not confined to matrimonial proceedings, and TJ also applies to the other areas of work of FJC. One important area where TJ also has a key role is at the Youth Court, which handles child protection, youth offences, and other cases involving children and young persons.

57. When determining how to deal with a youth to promote his or her best interests, the Youth Court frequently takes the information and advice of allied professionals. Indeed, the Children and Young Persons Act provides that these allied professionals not only “inform and advise” the judge, but also “constitute” and sit with the judge in the Youth Court whenever a written report has been prepared for the case.

58. Going forward, we aim to fortify the Youth Justice regime in partnership with MSF and other stakeholders so that our youths can have the benefits of TJ and problem-solving interventions for their rehabilitation and protection. Our TJ “Deep Dive” consultants will also bring their expertise into these efforts.

Facilitating Court Processes, Settlement and Enforcement (Access to Justice – Procedural and Substantive)

59. Our second strategic thrust involves facilitating court processes, settlement and enforcement, and through these, facilitating access to justice. This entails reviewing existing “pain-points” and leveraging technology where practicable to make the court experience a smoother and more positive one.

60. I had explained at last year’s Workplan that our enhancements improve access to justice in two dimensions: first, making the court process simpler and friendlier for court users (what we might call “procedural access to justice”). And second, in equipping court users with sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions and pursue their legal rights and remedies (what we might call “substantive access to justice”).

61. One initiative to promote procedural access to justice by simplifying court processes is the Electronic Template Statements or “ETS” for short. This initiative enhances access to justice by assisting and guiding parties to fill in necessary information and provide relevant documents which the system will consolidate for trial for fresh maintenance cases under s 69 of the Women’s Charter. The data on the intended platform can also be analysed for statistics and future projects involving the use of artificial intelligence.

62. The pilot concluded last year. It was well received, and we have decided to launch this as a permanent service. In February this year, we extended the ETS to applications to vary maintenance orders under s 72 of the Women’s Charter.

63. In the longer run, we are exploring the possibility of having digital forms where the deponent will be answering a series of questions online, and at the end of it, a statement containing the answers will be generated for purposes of submission for trial.

64. I turn now to substantive access to justice. Last year, I spoke about the Family Orders Guide, which seeks to provide guidance to all court users on the language of commonly used court orders, which they may adopt for their cases. I am happy to update that we have since published a new edition of the guide which includes an update to the terminology as well as an expansion of commonly used orders relating to Probate, Adoption and the Mental Capacity Act.

65. We also aim to deepen our efforts to make the knowledge of family law more accessible. Family law is not “fluffy”. Family law is rich in doctrinal issues, what some call “black letter law”. There are many cases covering different aspects of family law, some of which can be technical.

66. The FJC Case Book project looks at providing overviews and summaries of key facts and holdings in significant family law decisions. These are placed into book chapters, with each chapter focusing on a different area of family law in Singapore. This book will assist both family law practitioners and self-represented parties in the preparation of their cases. 

67. The case book will complement seminal textbooks and FJC “Case Highlights”. It will also complement the Knowledge Management Portal as additional reference material for our family judges.

68. The case book will be hosted on the Singapore Courts website. Individual chapters will be added on whenever they are completed.

Fortifying Judges’ and Lawyers’ Capacity and Capability

69. Family judges and lawyers are essential components of our TJ “software”. Strengthening our family judges’ and lawyers’ capacities and capabilities has been a priority since FJC’s establishment, and this also draws on recommendations by the “RERF Committee” in 2019.

70. Last year, we successfully concluded our third run of the Family Judges’ Learning Week, where the focus was on training our family judges on TJ practices and techniques as well as a host of other multi-disciplinary topics. The trainers included local and international experts from various fields, including members of FJC’s Advisory and Research Council on TJ. FJC will work with the Singapore Judicial College to curate the training for our judges.

71. We will also continue to support the equipping of family lawyers. Work is underway for the Singapore Academy of Law to offer the second run of the Family Therapeutic Justice Certification Programme for lawyers in the later part of this year. This Programme is a voluntary professional certification course for family lawyers who are keen to build renewed skill-sets and capabilities to practise effectively in a TJ family justice landscape.

72. We will also continue to engage with lawyers through various avenues such as Dialogues with the Family Law Practice Committee, Family Justice Rules Committee, Probate Practice Committee, and the Registrar’s Engagement of the Family Bar.

Heartware

73. Our theme today is “Keep it Up!”. Keep what up, you ask? The dedication and hard work of our staff and judges to our everyday work in FJC.

74. A friend of mine who is a highly respected social worker sent me a message a couple of weeks ago. This is her message:

“Hi Debbie today I met an 18 year old who was so inspired by how an FJC judge took the trouble to speak to him and his brother when he was a child during their parents’ divorce hearing. So he plans to study law and become a judge some day. See the impact that your judges make”.

75. How wonderful. You could be that judge in that case, or you may not be, but many of us here are that judge. All of us in FJC carry out our work daily, trying our best, doing what is right. It will amaze you to know that your small everyday acts (that you probably have forgotten about) have had enormous impact on someone’s life. Your labour is not in vain, even when you do not know what fruits you have produced. Often in life, we will never know.

76. You could be an interpreter who gave an assuring presence to a party and made a huge difference to that person’s experience. You could be on duty at the front counter and showed kindness to someone who really needed to see that some kindness exists in this very tough world. You could be a CAPS Specialist who gave a life-line to a drowning party who thought there was no hope for healing (until he met you). You may have been that Mediator who helped parties agree on maintenance, even when it seemed utterly impossible that the parties could agree on anything, and you gave hope that other things are possible for them too.

77. As judges, often our court orders may not fully ‘fix” the problem – we may not be able to make financial orders that are comfortably sufficient to provide for the family (because the pie is too small to be shared amongst family members), we cannot compel broken relationships to mend by a court order. But in the journey of court proceedings, all of us can give hope, help families in their journey to heal, to inspire them just like the child in this message felt inspired. In the family justice system, our processes, the parties’ journey and experience in the court, are often what can make that wonderful difference. Our court processes and all the work we do, when they are “TJ”, enables parties to find resources in themselves to move on.

78. Let me share a few more notes of appreciation that show that you do make a difference:

  • The judge approach to the case was brilliant and [showed her] concern [for] the children[‘s] well-being... I want to thank [her] … for tak[ing] her time to advise me on [the] situation…
  • Thank you for taking extra effort to follow-up promptly during Chinese New Year eve … relating to my request for a soft copy of the Grant of Letter of Administration for my late aunt. It was crucial for our family …
  • Thanks for the documents. And even more, thank you for your great patience and taking the extra mile to call me to explain further. Kudos to your dedication!
  • We wish to compliment your Divorce Registry staff, [X] for her very helpful assistance yesterday. She was also extremely polite. [She] is a shining representative and role model of your well-esteemed organisation.
  • [Y] is very courteous and friendly. Excellent service rendered. Thank you.
  • [Z] is very helpful, kind.

79. Even when an immediate “fix-it” solution is not visible to the parties because the journey can take some time, the knowledge and assurance that the FJC is an institution that can be trusted to give “Justice that heals” will go a long way for the families.

80. I am very grateful to our Chief Justice for always encouraging us and giving support and guidance to us in our work.

81. I am so proud of you in FJC and I encourage us all to “Keep it Up!”.

82. Thank you very much.


(1) VDZ v VEA [2020] 2 SLR 858 (“VDZ v VEA”) at [77].

(2)  VDZ v VEA at [77] – [79].
(3) VDX v VDY and another appeal [2021] SGHCF 2 (“VDX v VDY”).

Topic: Speech, Speeches

Topics:Workplans
2023/03/05

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