Once they both decided to part ways after 18 years together, all he and his wife wanted was to settle the terms of their divorce amicably, without a drawn-out tussle.
On the advice of their lawyers, the couple opted to take the Collaborative Family Practice (CFP) route, where parties and their respective lawyers work out together the terms of the split — including the division of matrimonial assets, maintenance payments and custody of the children — before filing their agreement with a Family Court.
After only four meetings, a deal was struck, in which he agreed to pay in full for a new five-room flat for his ex-wife and the quantum of child and spouse maintenance.
“When we came to that stage, I didn’t want to argue over this and that. Once the divorce was initiated, I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible,” said the divorcee, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lee.
The CFP started in 2013, the same year the Family Justice Review Committee was tasked to look at ways to make the family justice system less stressful and acrimonious. Before that, divorces were known to involve estranged couples bringing their spats to the courtroom, where each tried to gain an edge over the other by trotting out their accounts of petty rows.
Under the CFP, trained lawyers sit in with their clients to facilitate negotiations on the terms, and they reach a mutually-agreed proposal they then file with the Family Courts.
Another person who has chosen the CFP service, Ms Chan (not her real name), said the official nature of court proceedings would have made it more difficult for her, given her grief and guilt over the end of her eight-year marriage.
“By letting us discuss the essential issues in person with our lawyers present to guide, mediate and officiate on the spot, the CFP process made the divorce as painless as it could probably get,” she said. She and her ex-husband reached a settlement in four meetings and concluded the divorce process in six months.
Lawyer Yap Teong Liang, who runs his own firm T L Yap Law Chambers LLC, dismissed fears that the CFP would make divorce appear easier and encourage more couples to resort to dissolving their marriages.
“The divorce law is still the same because after you successfully complete the CFP process, you still need to file the divorce documents in court. I think the fundamental difference is that whatever decision they come to in the sense of an agreement, both parties have participated in the process of arriving at a consensual agreement,” he said.
Apart from both spouses’ willingness to negotiate their arrangements amicably, lawyers said screening for family or marital violence and mental health issues are involved for eligibility.
Mr Rajan Chettiar said the CFP process may be slightly shorter than traditional court mediation. Under the CFP scheme, parties work together as a team to identify issues and solutions in a non-adversarial environment. In contrast, parties in court mediation have to file their divorce with the courts and submit all the relevant court documents before proceeding to mediation, he said.
“I think that’s not a good idea because mediation comes a bit too late when people have already filed court documents and said all the things they want to say about each other. They’ve already set the tone for that kind of acrimony … and then you want them to shift gear and go to mediate. I think it’s quite tough for some people,” added Mr Chettiar.
Couples will also have to sign upfront an agreement informing them that they cannot use the same lawyers engaged for the CFP process if the matter proceeds to litigation in court should they fail to reach an agreement, said family lawyer Michelle Woodworth, a partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.
“It is to provide a holistic and safe environment for negotiation on a without-prejudice platform. And I think it incentivises the settlement process; everybody is kept focused on the ultimate goal which is to come to a resolution,” she added.