1. In this piece, I am sharing a summary of a few selected matters that I have personally handled. My aim is to illustrate the many shapes and sizes that such matters come in, as well as the real challenges that come with a family breakdown involving children. Each case brought some important lessons which are gleaned by looking at the cases themselves.
2. The law is instinctively straightforward for any and every issue involving the child(ren) – i.e. to consider the best interests of the child(ren). What exactly then is the “best interests” of the child? Sometimes, the answer is objectively clear to all parties, but the devil is in the details. Many other times, the answer is not so clear cut, and all available options involve some form of “loss” or another. When navigating such perilous waters, sometimes the only guiding star is to act with the best of intentions based on the limited knowledge at hand, with a view to helping parties come up with a workable solution as a basis for the future. In other words, the legal process is the only the beginning, and if the tone is not set properly, can lead to a lifetime of further disputes. This is a responsibility I take very seriously.
A. Cases 1 and 2: Listen to Child(ren)! They are Incapable of Hiding Their True Feelings
3. I had always been enlightened to the importance of listening to children but CASE 1 really hammered this point home. I acted for the father (“F”) in a family blessed with 5 children. Number 1 was a teenager, numbers 2 and 3 were in upper Primary school, and numbers 4 and 5 were toddlers. As with many cases, both parties wanted to have care & control of all the children.
4. From the start, I asked F to consider “what is the best for the children” as well as “what is ideal for him”. Of course, I was able to have this discussion with F because he acknowledged that his soon-to-be-ex-wife (“X”), was the mother of the children and he wanted the children to maintain contact with her. There were also practical considerations with 5 children of different age groups – e.g. how to handle all 5 children alone, and what activities can all 5 do together? After all, children are living beings with feelings and interests, and not just commodities that we can quantify.
5. Eventually, when we hit an impasse, F decided to “let go”. We agreed that if neither side gave-in, the only other option was to have the matter contested. F was of course concerned that his children would think that he did not fight for them, and we discussed how F could speak to his children. This was a turning point. In the weeks that followed, Children 2 and 3 refused to go home to X after staying with F despite F telling them to go back. Then, Children 4 and 5 insisted that they wanted to stay with F and turned up at F’s place with some clothes. At the next mediation, we came to an agreement.
6. In CASE 2, I represented the mother (“M”) who was a Singapore PR. When the marriage broke down, her husband (“X”) cut-off her finances and took an aggressive approach in the proceedings. Among X’s frequent accusations was that M refused to allow the child to see X’s parents and grandmother, as well as refusing to allow X to communicate with the child [*Note: X was based overseas]. M and I went out of our way to arrange for the child to speak to X. Problem is, the child being an adolescent, was going through a rebellious stage and refused to speak to X. M even pleaded with the child to speak to X, explaining how X would misunderstand and potentially make things difficult for her, but the child remained stubborn.
7. A Child Representative (“CR”) was appointed and interviewed the child. The child told the CR that M made him speak to X but he did not want to speak to X because he was “busy” with homework, etc. This was documented in the CR’s report. Seeing this, X softened his stance. The matter was eventually heard and decided mostly in M’s favour. The difference this made was restoration of some degree of trust. When X saw that he did not need to take an aggressive stance, his communication with M improved, consequently improving his relationship with the child. For example, knowing that the child liked Harry Potter books, X wanted to buy the whole series for him. But M advised him to buy book by book, so that he would have an “excuse” to bring the child out more times.
8. Both CASE 1 and CASE 2 show the importance of listening to the child(ren). Divorce proceedings are between the 2 ex-spouses, but the subject matter of Custody issues is the child(ren). What better starting point than to actually ask the child(ren) what they want. Of course, this has to be done in a mindful manner as child(ren) should never have to “choose” between either parent.
9. Some cases do not present the opportunity to hear the voices of the children so easily. In CASE 1, the children readily voiced their views to their parents. However, in CASE 2, the father being abroad, did not have the opportunity to hear his child’s views until the CR was appointed. Personally, whenever there are conflicting accounts of what the children are telling each parent, I urge the Court to get counsellors to speak to the child(ren) of my clients. Ideally, I would want counsellors to speak to the child(ren) in ALL the matters that I handle. Of course, due to limited resources, my wish remains a wish.
B. Case 3 & 4: Not All Parents Love Their Children Equally
10. Unfortunately, this is a reality. In CASE 3, I represented the father (“F”). Based on F’s instructions, his soon-to-be-ex-spouse (“X”) had not been interested in the caregiving of the child. Of course, X’s official version of events told a different story. After some discussion with F, we were convinced that X thought of the child as a “burden” but was putting up a “fight” as a bargaining chip. I asked F a hard question, “If X wants money, how much are you willing to pay to secure care of your child? Put aside whether you think it is fair”. We made an offer and X agreed to give sole care and control of the child to F.
11. My client and I read the situation correctly and made a calculated decision. We are fortunate that this call turned out to be the right one. I also believe that the outcome was also in the child’s best interest. There was no reason to blindly stick to traditional views (e.g. that mothers are best in all situations), especially when the facts showed otherwise. The world has changed, and we cannot continue to cling on to archaic notions too religiously.
12. CASE 4 was really unfortunate. I acted for the mother (“M”), who was a long-time client. I had acted for her in child custody and divorce proceedings previously. Throughout those proceedings, I pushed hard for M because her ex-husband (“X”) had been fundamentally chauvinistic, condescending and bullying towards M. To give an example, at the first mediation, X told the Judge, “Usually it is the man who leaves the woman, so how can the woman leave the man here?!”.
13. A few years later, parties were back in Court disputing their child’s primary school application. For reasons best known to her, M became extremely un-cooperative with me. She refused to provide me with the information I requested and refused to take my advice. In issue was which school to send their child to. X suggested sending the child to M’s alma mater. However, M refused solely on the basis that her alma mater was a branded school and students from branded schools turn out arrogant. Unsurprisingly, X filed an urgent application. 2 weeks before the deadline for registration, M agreed to attempt registration of the child at her alma mater upon certain conditions. We sent a proposal and X agreed, so lawyers were going to record a Consent Order at the next hearing.
14. A few days before the hearing, M suddenly said that she wanted to “fight” the hearing. Obviously, I did not agree with this. After all, we had already come to an agreement in writing. Moreover, M was intending to vary the custody order to have more time with the child in the future. If M “fought” for the sake of fighting, this would reflect badly on her in the future. Nonetheless, I said that it was my duty to follow her instructions but that my charges would be higher since she wanted to contest the matter. She refused to pay and changed lawyer. Her new lawyer told me that M said that I “refused to fight”. Last I checked, she then changed lawyers at least another time.
15. M in CASE 4 just lost the plot unfortunately. She was plainly not thinking for the child. It also did not make strategic sense to fight for the sake of fighting. Sadly, this was 1 case where I found myself conflicted between my many duties – to M, to the Court, and to a just outcome for the child.
C. Case 5: Of Egos and Calculated Decisions
16. CASE 5 was nothing flash. I acted for the mother (“M”) in a financially lopsided marriage. Her soon-to-be-ex-husband (“X”) kept beating his chest from the outset, saying that he would “fight” for the care of the children. But we knew that he wanted to get a quick divorce to marry his mistress. X offered a large sum of money (by any standards) but on the condition that M gave up care of the children to X. M did not have the resources to contest the care of the children, and she told me that X had no real interest in the children but just wanted to exert power over her.
17. We called X’s bluff by accepting his offer. It was a calculated decision. The analogy I used with M was this – X and her were pulling on a rope in opposite directions, so X could either continue pulling, or let go. M let go and X fell flat on his back. He paid M, and right on cue as predicted, X kept sending the children back to M shortly after the divorce. X’s ego drove him to threaten to “fight” for the children with no real intention to have their care. When he realized that he wanted out of the marriage sooner rather than later (to be with his mistress), he made an offer which was more generous than he wanted to make, yet still insisted on imposing a condition involving the care of the children. In the end, it was X’s ego that gave M a good outcome.