Therapeutic Justice In Family Cases: The Lawyer – Part 2

Article by Susan Tay

This is the 2nd of a 4-part series on therapeutic justice and how it may be applied in family cases in Singapore. You may read Part 1 here where I wrote about how the essence of Therapeutic Justice for family cases is in the healing.

The next 3 parts involve the perspectives and roles of the different players involved and they are namely, The Lawyer, The Accountant and The Counsellor.

In the context of these articles, family cases will be restricted to divorce and the issues arising out of a divorce i.e. property division, financial support and importantly, children’s matters including custody, care and control, access.

My Perspective

As a concept, there is really no faulting Therapeutic Justice. It has all the right sound bites: resolving underlying causes, addressing emotional needs, or simply helping parties to “heal”.  In practice however, players engaged in the traditional arena of the strictly legal, like lawyers, flounder.  

Therapeutic Justice requires that we venture into the unknown, into the “touchy feely” of psychological needs, the “messiness” of managing emotions. We are not mental health experts and we must not pretend to be! Lawyers protest. Our reluctance to deal with them does not however make any of the emotions go away. Quite the other way. For disputes between family members in particular, these cases are so vehemently charged, they will often break bonds, frequently lifelong and even for generations. 

There are therefore to be no more excuses for us. Lawyers MUST acquire the skills necessary for managing client’s emotional welfare, understanding underlying causes and recognising psychological effects.  In addition, we NEED to collaborate with the different disciplines, like accountants, counsellors, mediators so that we are equipped to provide even the most basic but completely essential care packs.

My Duties

I place 3 aspects of my duties as paramount: Counsel, Care, Protect, even more now in Therapeutic Justice. For me, the three duties are like Siamese Triplets that cannot be separated.

If I may, I’d like to demonstrate this by giving a background of my own journey as a family lawyer.

My Journey

I did not start my legal career focused on Family Law.  Instead, I was trained as a litigation lawyer for commercial disputes. Quite frankly, my cases in those fledgling years escape me.

I do however remember my 1st ever family case rather vividly. It was in my 2nd year of practice and I had just ventured out as my own boss in Ong Tay & Partners.

That case was a divorce based on separation, no children, a HDB flat; it was straight forward, uneventful and after some negotiations, by consent. It is amazing but for someone embarrassingly horrendous with names and faces, I can even see my client in my head now, a young lady, with no make-up except for that pair of lined eyes. Cases like this should not have left any impression but it did because I remember the feelings. She was sad in our 1st meeting but pleased in our last. Thanked me profusely for resolving an otherwise painful parting smoothly.

It was especially gratifying for me and I remembered thinking idiotically, where are these appreciative clients in my other cases?

Then there was the case that haunted me such that for many years in my 30s, I rejected representing parents ferociously fighting over their kids. This case was a particularly acrimonious access case that I still cite when I share about how a child can suffer long term adverse effects from a bitter litigation between parents.

The parents were not married and they went their separate ways when the child was born.  This Child did not meet her dad until she was just about to go to primary school. Mother refused access after Father made it clear that there was no prospect of them getting back together. She said he should not confuse the Child with access especially as he had been absent for so long. Altercations were aplenty and Mother even took out a private summons for assault. Personal Protection Orders did not, and still do not protect against non-family members and back then, there was no POHA. It was a fight that lasted years with the Father finally granted access including overnight.

Fast forward 10 years, the child is now a troubled teen who self-mutilates to soothe. Parents still don’t get along and I get the occasional calls from my client to complain about the other parent.

It is particularly heart breaking as the parents were not fighting over custody, not even care and control. It was only for access by the Father.

My Meaning

I made the decision to focus on family law late in my career although it felt like I had been a family lawyer since forever. I felt I could finally be a good one as I acquired the necessary wisdom, both in life and at work. Mainly, I felt I was ready because I could finally summon the courage for my conviction. 

This is the reason why I have not left practice. This calling of a family lawyer is my meaning.

I did not realise for quite a while that the meaning stopped coming from winning the battles in court. Instead, it came from clients I represented so many years ago turning up and telling me how what I did changed their lives. It is at once deeply humbling and immensely gratifying.

My Role

My sister once asked me what kind of clients I prefer. Mothers or Fathers? Wives or Husbands? I told her I like the kind of clients I instinctively feel like I want to care and protect. These are clients I think are good people, with good intentions who truly come from a good place. They are of course, no less susceptible, like any other human, to emotions like anger, anxieties, sadness which sometime made them act out in ways which seem unthinking, even selfish. I have since understood that these actions are hardly ever irrational but are instead stem from distrust and fear.

I am not alone in this. Those of us who view family law as a calling see ourselves as a trusted counsel and we do as its name suggest, counsel then care and protect.

We counsel and advise on what the law is; and then give a perspective on what will be regarded as the reasonable thing to do, especially for the long run. Our clients let us know what matter to them and what they will therefore need; and we fiercely protect their interests. Importantly, we are needed to help our clients navigate through the many pathways to a resolution, quite often a personal painful journey even as we, the lawyers don’t see it, while doing our utmost in our care of their well-being.

As the lawyer and trusted advisor and maybe even the professional with the most interactions with the client, I recognise that I wield tremendous influence. With great power comes a greater responsibility.

My aspiration therefore, beyond all that I have described as duties of a lawyer, will be to always advocate for the pursuit of lifelong peace for my clients and healing relations with their families.

This we do, not only with the wisdom of having seen through so many broken relations and as many happy resolutions; but also with the courage to tell the client the things they don’t really want to hear or do the things they really loathe to do.