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Therapeutic justice: a renewed vision for family justice in Singapore

In her Work Plan 2020 speech, the Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts (FJC) Justice Debbie Ong announced that FJC and the family justice community will be co-creating a renewed vision of family justice informed by principles of therapeutic justice (TJ).

The seeds of TJ were planted in the mid-1990s when mediation and counselling were incrementally introduced into the family justice system. The establishment of the FJC in 2014 as a single unified court marked a historical milestone and it was envisioned, at that time, that FJC would evolve to become a problem-solving court. TJ presents us with a common language with which to renew that vision together with all stakeholders in the community.

In essence, TJ is a "lens of care" through which we can examine the extent to which the legal landscape of substantive rules, laws and legal procedures, as well as the roles and behaviour of the family justice participants, produce helpful or harmful consequences. This could lead to reform of laws and procedures as well as more intentional and helpful interventions by family practitioners and other professionals in the space. It is hoped that our collective efforts would help to engender a mindset shift in the community. All stakeholders should have the same understanding that the resolution of family disputes need not be adversarial in nature and should be solutions focused, even when litigation is required.

Frequently asked questions for therapeutic justice

Here are some frequently asked questions on TJ.

1. Why are family disputes special and why do they require a different approach?

Family cases are special in nature. People come to the Family Courts to rearrange their most private and intimate family affairs.

Underlying many family disputes are non-legal concerns. Powerful emotions sometimes overwhelm rational thinking and cloud judgment. Anger, hurt and grief are often the drivers of litigation, and these emotions may not dissipate with a case when it is concluded in court. Indeed, the re-ordering of family ties and obligations, coupled with financial stress and disruption of division, mean that parties, their children and even their extended families may remain at strife long after the court event.

Children suffer as a result of intra-parental conflict. Social science research has shown that factors such as being under constant stress and anxiety, feelings of guilt, abandonment and shame as well as the stress of financial uncertainty can hinder emotional growth and a healthy development of young children.

The court process therefore should help to manage the consequences of family breakdown and nudge families to move forward in the fairest way possible, equipping them, where appropriate and necessary, with tools and resources that will help them move forward legally, emotionally and financially, without needing to come back to the court process. Practitioners play a pivotal role in mitigating the potential damage that arises in family disputes.

2. What is therapeutic justice and why do we need it?

TJ is the study of the role of law as a therapeutic agent.

It views the law as a social force that may produce therapeutic (i.e. helpful) or anti-therapeutic (i.e. harmful) consequences, whether intended or unintended. Such consequences may flow from the operation of substantive rules, laws, legal procedures, or from the behaviour of legal actors such as lawyers and judges.

What TJ does:

  • TJ invites us to think differently and be aware of otherwise underappreciated aspects of the law i.e. the human, social, psychological and emotional aspects.
  • It also compels us to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach, to apply and incorporate insights from psychology and social science research into our work. This is especially important in family work where we have to take into account the child’s welfare

TJ does not:

  • TJ however does not usurp important legal norms such as the rule of law, procedural justice and due process which are fundamental to good and sound TJ practices.
  • It also does not seek to turn judges and lawyers into counsellors or psychologists. It does, however, ask legal actors to be conscious that underlying problems do exist and to intentionally think of how these problems can be resolved.

3. How is therapeutic justice applied for family cases?

TJ is a “lens of care” through which we can examine the extent to which the legal landscape of substantive rules, laws and legal procedures (i.e. the hardware), as well as the roles and behaviour of the family justice participants (i.e. the software), produce helpful or harmful consequences.

The objective would be to build good hardware and great software as we would need both. For example, the mediation process is good TJ hardware as it enables parties to participate in finding solutions for themselves. However, poor application may still result in anti-therapeutic outcomes. Conversely, even if there is a court process that may not be TJ friendly, a judge applying the right touch and lawyers focused on problem solving can still steer the parties towards helpful and workable outcomes.

Adopting a TJ lens together will help us achieve justice that:

  • Protects families and children.
  • Restores and helps parties adjust to new lives apart.
  • Empowers and supports families, especially parents, in their co-parenting efforts.

4. How can we use the therapeutic justice lens to refresh and renew our collective vision moving forward?

Elements of TJ have already been introduced over the years. We already have good structures and some of our family practitioners have been practising in a TJ inclined fashion.

Going forward: adopting a common language

We should adopt a common language to consolidate our past efforts and sharpen the way forward. For example, when a judge takes the time to explain the trial process to a self-represented litigant or when a lawyer helps the client understand that divorce pleadings and affidavits should not be drafted in a way that is deliberately provocative to the receiving party.

Each of us has an important part to play in our different roles. TJ can help us broaden our field of inquiry to be more mindful and intentional of the therapeutic and non-therapeutic effects of our processes and actions, to seek to consider the underlying problems faced by the parties and to address them.

Piloting a multi-disciplinary team approach

FJC is piloting a multi-disciplinary team approach, which triages suitable cases to a single team comprising of hearing judges, a judge-mediator, court family specialists and a case manager. The objective is to provide a judge-led space incorporating multi-disciplinary elements at an earlier stage of proceedings, before matters escalate and become unnecessarily acrimonious. Within that space, this team will work together to seek to provide holistic outcomes for the family. It is hoped that even when adjudication is necessary, greater support for the families is brought in earlier to provide sustainable solutions that better address the consequences of family breakdown.

This approach requires a concerted effort between the court, lawyers, court users and specialist services within the community. Each needs to be sensitised to the new lens through which a case is being viewed and be ready to coordinate efforts more effectively to achieve lasting outcomes.

Focusing on the people in the family justice system

Applying the TJ lens, all the family justice professionals involved have to be aware that what they do and say could have “therapeutic” or “anti-therapeutic” consequences on the parties, and the family’s ability to deal with root causes of family conflict.

TJ calls for an awakening of our consciousness and consciences as judges, court staff, family law practitioners, psychologists and counsellors to embrace these values and to encourage participants to be fully engaged in solving problems that required durable solutions.

Both the court and the lawyers will undergo specialised training and build on specialist capacities to enable them to take on the unique problem-solving role of a family judge and the family practitioner.

5. What is the therapeutic justice approach and why did FJC decide to adopt therapeutic justice for family cases?

The TJ approach is about adopting a “lens of care” to examine the extent to which the laws, rules and legal procedures, as well as the behaviour of the participants in the family justice system could produce helpful or harmful consequences.

It is believed that applying a TJ approach could lead to a more amicable and sustainable resolution of issues through greater involvement and integration of the varied efforts of the court and its support services, external agencies, the family bar and the litigants. It is hoped that these collective efforts will engender a mindset shift in the community about the resolution of family disputes. Family disputes can be non-adversarial and need not be combative in nature even when litigation is required.

6. How should parties conduct themselves during the course of their case?

Parties should:

  • Recognise that family disputes arise for a host of reasons and no one can resolve the issues on their own.
  • Any solution must start with a resolve to move from the past of hurt, blame and even denial to focus on the future by adopting a problem-solving approach. This requires an open mind set and a willingness to change and adapt to a new normal.
  • We can only do our best with matters within our control i.e. ourselves. We cannot expect outcomes that are not within our control, for example that the other party should behave in the way you want or the children would respond to you in the same way as before the difficulties started or escalated.
  • While it is completely understandable that we may be overcome by our emotions during difficult periods in our lives, it is important that you focus on solutions that benefit the children involved and in the long term, you and your spouse.
  • It is important to explore options and solutions and use our best efforts to contribute to resolving issues. Only when both parties are sufficiently calm and committed to problem-solving that acrimony between the parties can be reduced and each member of the family can start on their journey of healing and a new normal for the family.

7. What are things that parties should not do?

Parties should not:

  • Send inflammatory letters, emails or messages to each other and hinder the chances of cooperation.
  • Instruct your lawyer to send inflammatory letters, email or messages to either the other party or their lawyer.
  • Allege the worst of the other spouse in affidavits in divorce proceedings, especially personally hurtful things, even going back 20 years or more.
  • File unnecessary applications which only increase costs and deplete savings, shrink the size of the matrimonial assets, and increase complexity and possibly generate even more conflict. Multiple applications can also increase levels of stress of everyone involved.
  • Place children in a position of a conflict of loyalty or burden them with your own issues. Children must be encouraged to respect both parents and understand that they are not the cause of divorce nor are they expected to take sides.
  • Abdicate your role as parents and let the children be the “parents” instead. In so doing, you deprive them of a normal childhood.
  • Use the court proceedings as a means of venting your frustrations.

8. What are the avenues to explore before considering starting an action in court?

Parties may:

9. What help is available to parties after a case is completed in court?

Parties may:

  • Approach a DSSA or FSC for continued support in the carrying out of the Court Order if counselling and re-building of familial relationships are needed. Find out the locations of the FSCs.
  • Approach a lawyer or the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) for legal advice in the event of any difficulty after the completion of the court proceedings on the options available. You may find the information on the following websites useful:

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