SINGAPORE — As a Family Justice Court (FJC) judge, District Judge (DJ) Lim Choi Ming has seen her fair share of familial disputes that would shake a person's faith in marriage and family.
Her job, however, requires her to look beyond emotions, and keep a clear focus on her role as a mediator.
“It's not so much about whether I'm happy today... neither is it about a statistic that I must succeed in getting parties to agree today," she told Yahoo News Singapore in a recent interview.
"More important than that is why we want to achieve this, and if we can help that one family go past their conflict and be able to have the confidence, independence, and optimism to go on, despite the divorce. Then, I think that the work is not so difficult,” said DJ Lim, who is part of a stable of FJC judges known as judge-mediators.
Unlike judges who oversee criminal matters, DJ Lim is involved in the mediation process of cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the FJC. These include divorce, probate and Mental Health Capacity Act cases.
Mediation typically involves parties sitting down with a judge to hash out suitable solutions and avoid having their cases heard in court, which might inflame matters, she explained.
The judge recalled a case involving a young couple who had filed for protection orders against each other and called on family members to testify.
"It was very sad because I remember seeing the parents (of the young couple) come in, and the parents were very uncomfortable in court. These are the people who are in their 60s, 70s and they don't want to be there. They were embarrassed as well that they had to be called to testify against someone else.”
In the end, DJ Lim did not grant any protection order, but asked both parties to work on their marriage with help from their parents, whom she said were in committed relationships.
She also asked the couple to apologise to their parents for forcing them to testify in court.
"They then hugged and held their in-laws, and the in-laws just cried and said 'I forgive you, and let's forget about all this'.
“It really, really moved me because I realised that the family court is not just about dispensing law," she said. "It's also a place for healing to take place."
Three things you didn’t know about the FJC
Judges use therapeutic justice
DJ Lim spoke at length about the concept of therapeutic justice, which deals with the social and emotional aspects of a case while applying legal concepts.
Although the idea or practice of therapeutic justice is not new, the FJC is now putting a name to the concept to signify how conflicts can “go beyond just the legality of division of assets or the payment of maintenance”, she said.
“We apply a multi-disciplinarian approach to a family and it’s not just about telling them this is the law, and this is how we apply it. We work very closely with our colleagues, the court family specialists... trained in addressing perhaps the emotional and the social aspects of parties in a divorce.
“Sometimes, it's going into the psyche of the person or understanding why they react in this way,” she added.
The FJC also works with the Ministry of Social and Family Development agencies to provide services such as long-term counselling and supervised access.
FJC premises are designed to promote calm
At the Family Dispute Resolution Centre in the Ministry of National Development building, the walls at DJ Lim’s mediation chambers are blue for a good reason.
“We actually thought about the layout pretty well in the sense that we mute the colours, we do not (use) colours that inflame (or cause) unhappiness," she explained. "We try and use neutral colours, gentle colours. As you can see behind me, it's blue, in the hope that it calms parties, rather than makes them combative."
There is also a room filled with toys, such as doll houses and a miniature cooking stove, where children have interviews with counsellors.
The doll houses also allow children to articulate their understanding of their family situation through play, and to express the kind of family arrangements they prefer.
Judges are taught how to diffuse tension
Divorces are “one of the most stressful occurrences in anybody's life”, with acrimonious divorces usually revolving around issues of money and children, noted DJ Lim.
When tensions escalate in chambers, judges would suggest for parties to break into a caucus – a private session – to root out the cause of the unhappiness.
“They may be saying one thing but really, deep down, what they're worried about might be…a place to stay, it might be contact time with the child. When we do find out what bothers them, if we can work with that, then I think that we can (resolve) the conflict or the argument more quickly.”
She believed that both parents should always be involved in a child's life.
“No matter how much or how little you have played a part in that child's life, I believe that every parent wants to do better," she said. Parents should share care responsibilities for their children, who would not have to take sides.
Perceptiveness is also important, with judges trained to look out for the body language of the parties involved. Sometimes, even the presence of a silent party in a session could trigger unhappiness.
“I think that empathy is very important as well to cope with these tensions because if we can understand why they're saying what they're saying, why they are so upset, and we can communicate that to the party, and then they're more able to... work with us to find a solution.”
A 'good divorce'
DJ Lim said she has developed a “deeper understanding of human character” through the numerous cases she has handled at the FJC.
"I will also say that no one person is always perfect, always right... (once we know this) it's not so important anymore to win an argument or... to show that you're better."
Marriage is an institution worth working on and preserving, the judge said. She recognised, however, that it is important for couples to move on when their union cannot continue.
"In the words of a very wise judge, ‘you can have a bad marriage, but you can have a good divorce’”.
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