Fewer divorces and personal protection orders filed in 2020

SINGAPORE – There were fewer divorces filed last year despite the Covid-19 pandemic which took a major toll on all aspects of life – from finances to family ties.

There were 6,016 divorce writs filed last year, 5 per cent fewer than the 6,321 in 2019. The writ for divorce is one of several documents that must be filed to start divorce proceedings.

The Family Justice Courts’ (FJC) caseload fell by 8 per cent last year, with Presiding Judge Debbie Ong saying: “We think this is due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

During the circuit breaker in April and May alone, the caseload fell by about 60 per cent compared to the same two months in 2019.

The FJC also handled fewer of other types of cases, such as maintenance and family violence. For example, there were 2,248 fresh applications for a personal protection order (PPO) last year, a 9 per cent drop from 2,460 in 2019.

A PPO is a court order restraining a person from committing violence against a family member.

The PPO data, part of the statistics released in the FJC’s Workplan 2021 on Wednesday (Feb 10), dispelled earlier concerns that the stresses brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and the circuit breaker would lead to a spike in family violence cases.

However, family lawyers interviewed said the statistics may not adequately reflect the realities on the ground.

The FJC only heard “urgent and essential” cases, such as those that constitute a threat to life and liberty or are time sensitive, during the circuit breaker last year, they said. All other hearings were adjourned to after the circuit breaker, and this could have led to the fall in divorce cases filed last year.

Lawyer Dorothy Tan said: “It could be because everything came to a halt for two months during the circuit breaker. The fact that people were stuck at home and law firms physically closed also meant that it was administratively more difficult to facilitate the commencement of new divorce proceedings during the circuit breaker.”

Lawyer Gloria James-Civetta said some couples thinking of divorce had second thoughts or delayed their plans, as they were worried about their finances, given the deep economic recession and the financial costs involved if they go ahead with a divorce during these precarious times.

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She said: “The fear of the unknown future caused quite a number to take a cautious approach.”

Besides financial concerns, many mothers had their hands full trying to adapt to working from home and managing their children’s home-based learning during the circuit breaker and filing for divorce was “not a pressing priority”, said lawyer Rajan Chettiar.

In her speech outlining plans for plans for the year, Justice Ong stressed the FJC’s approach of therapeutic justice.

Therapeutic justice is an non-adversarial process that seeks to solve problems and help parents to learn to manage their conflicts and engage in co-parenting, instead of an adversarial approach where each party pursues his interests single-mindedly.

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This involves bringing therapeutic help for the parties involved, making the processes “simple, navigable and doable”, and ensuring legal professionals such as family judges and lawyers are equipped to deliver therapeutic justice, said Justice Ong.

She said: “The common denominator in all these is a focus on problem-solving instead of adversarial litigation.”

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