A. Case 6 & 7: You Are “Fighting” for Your Child(ren)’s Affection, Not Your Ex-Spouse’s Demise
1. In CASE 6, I represented the father (“F”). He had previously sought a consultation on his ex-wife’s (“X”) intended relocation with the children to follow her new husband. A year later, F came back to me when X began threatening “legal action”. Essentially, X was trying to argue for money that she was not entitled to, even under a somewhat confusing consent order. When the matter finally reached Court proceedings, unsurprisingly, X applied to vary the previous consent order purportedly to have more time with the children. This was just a bargaining chip as X clearly had her eye on money.
2. F was understandably anxious because since the divorce, he had been very much part of the children’s lives, caring for them 50% of the time. Prior to this episode, parties were actually able to come to mutual arrangements regarding the children. Of course, upon divorce, both parties’ lives inevitably took different trajectories and each party’s priorities became more-and-more disjointed.
3. Beneath all the usual song-and-dance, there were strong negative sentiments against each other. I told F to just focus on what is important. For the legal proceedings we should just deal with the issues, and for his children he should continue to focus on being part of their lives. We should not let X’s ulterior motives side-track us. I did have to advise F against taking out retaliatory applications / actions numerous times. Eventually, X’s applications were dismissed and the Court even increased F’s access time with the children even though we did not apply for this.
4. CASE 7 was a textbook of case of someone losing the plot completely. I acted for the father (“F”) who had refused to engage a lawyer in divorce proceedings to “save money”. Needless to say, he got a really bad deal. Now he needed to vary his divorce order to allow him more time with his children. He had a “head start” as his elder child had already moved out to stay with him. But his ex-wife (“X”) had been cutting / restricting his access to the younger child.
5. Things were actually going fine in F’s favour. A Judge mediator and a counsellor who interviewed the younger child were of the view that F’s request for better structure and more time with his younger child were reasonable and justified. Unfortunately, X was out to spite F, and refused to settle. X changed lawyers and asked for a contested hearing. As the mediation was “without prejudice”, we could not adduce the mediator’s or counsellor’s observations to the hearing Court. I emphasized to F that he should not view these proceedings as a “fight” against X. Instead, he should focus on trying to persuade the hearing Judge, and in the meantime, he should just focus on winning over the affections of his children.
6. For reasons best known to F, he then refused to update me for 2 weeks. I later found out that during this time, he had gone on a profanity-laced rampage against X’s sister who provoked F to instigate a bad response. To make matters worse, F sent messages to the younger child saying that he would send X to prison if F did not get access. F’s rationale was that he allegedly “knew” that X was using his younger child’s phone to message him. This episode did not sit well with the hearing Judge, who agreed that F should have proper time with the younger child, but given these recent events, if too much time was ordered, the younger child might end up refusing to go for access altogether. Quite frankly, I thought it was worth appealing, but F hesitated.
7. The difference between these 2 cases is like heaven-and-hell. In CASE 6, my client listened to my advice and focused on his children while we handled the issues objectively. However, in CASE 7 my client threw away a good head start due to sheer ego and a refusal to heed my advice. For CASE 7, I felt bad that a just purpose did not meet a just outcome purely due to a moment of bad judgment.
B. Cases 8: Nobody Wins and Everybody Loses
8. CASE 8 was early in my legal career when my direct boss deployed me to assist another partner with the legwork for an interim custody application. We acted for the father (“F”). Shortly after his child was born, things went south with his ex-wife(“X”), who with the help of her mother (“MIL”), cut F off from his child. Long-story short, we put our best foot forward and secured interim shared care and control for F.
9. This case was the first where I was so closely and directly involved with dealing with the client. As I drafted F’s Affidavits, I felt F’s deep emotions as though they were my own. Prior to the hearing, the child was with F [*Note: There is some backstory to this. We pushed for interim access at a Case Conference just before the hearing, and F finally got to see the child after months of being denied access. The child was running a fever and F insisted on caring for the child until he got well or until the Judge’s decision]. So when the Judge reserved her Judgment for 2 days, and I updated F, these words by F made me feel the weight of my responsibility, “Thank you Mr Teo. I was prepared for the worse already. Now I have 2 more days, I am so thankful for 2 days with my son”.
10. Later on at divorce proceedings, we went through mediation and reached a resolution. During divorce mediation, the issue of reconciliation came up. After all, at the root of such heated arguments were strong feelings for each other to start with. Eventually, reconciliation fell through as parties were fixated on making the other “admit” their wrongdoings. Upon reflection, parties could have benefitted from professional help if it was available. But this was in 2010 when we did not work with counsellors yet. Even now, I wish that lawyers could make direct applications to refer certain matters for other forms of intervention to de-escalate the situation early on.
11. A couple of years later the order was varied when the child was going to primary school. By this time, I saw F more relaxed. He had moved on and the sheer stress in his veins that was visible when I first saw him, had been replaced by a certain calmness. I am happy for him. But I can’t help but feel sad that 2 peoples’ love ended this way. During one of our conversations, F shared that he asked his child what he wanted, to which his child said, “I want both you and mummy to be together”.
C. Case 9: Sometimes it is a Plain Battle for Every Inch of Real Estate
12. Part of CASE 9 was shared in another article “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (see: Link) in which I acted for the father(“F”). What was not so clear from that article is how we were forced to “fight” for every inch, leading up to securing shared care and control for F, as well as a dismissal of the ex-wife’s (“X”) relocation application in the Family Court and on appeal in the High Court.
13. After abducting the child, X did everything she could to deny access to F. Initially, after securing X’s return to Singapore, parties agreed on some general terms on access because they agreed that they would not know X’s schedule until she returned with the child. Needless to say, X created all sorts of excuses not to fix access or to cancel access that had been fixed.
14. Observing X’s conduct, I knew we had to play the long game – our first priority was to secure fixed timing for access, then build up F’s relationship with the child, then ask for overnight access, then re-access what is working and what is not. Along the way, we also needed to register the child in school. Concurrently, we had to deal with a further abduction attempt, X’s refusal to renew the child’s immigration pass, and constant requests to leave Singapore with the child. By the time we had reached the Ancillary Matters hearing, F’s relationship with the child was strong and this turned out to be a crucial factor that tipped the delicate balance in our favour.
15. We did try amicable ways of resolving issues throughout the whole proceedings, but X plainly refused to reciprocate. In the end, we were forced to “fight” for even the most basic of F’s rights, solely due to X’s bad conduct.
D. Case 10: Do Not Lett 3rd Parties Hijack Your Divorce
16. In CASE 10, I acted for the mother (“M”) in divorce proceedings. At the beginning, her ex-husband (“X”) had been distant from his children’s lives for a significant period of time. When divorce proceedings started, X unsurprisingly asked for the sky-and-the-moon in terms of access. X did not help himself by showing up at the elder child’s school during school hours, and the younger child’s kindergarten. Naturally, the 2 children were “traumatized”. Despite this, we made arrangements for interim access, and again X seemed more interested in creating a scene than actually seeing the children.
17. Nonetheless, parties attended mediation and both sides agreed to kick-off supervised access at 1 of the Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (“DSSA”) where M would drop the children off at a DSSA centre for access with X under the supervision of the counsellor. I made it clear to M that such an arrangement was meant to pave the way for proper access between X and the children. The counsellor was there to observe their interactions and provide feedback to F and M on how to improve things. Each cycle ordered involves 8 sessions.
18. By the time we reached the Ancillary Matters stage, parties had gone through at least 3 cycles of DSSA supervised access and it was recommended that X had 3 hours of unsupervised access with the children. Yet, M still insisted on limiting access to only 1 hour per week. I was puzzled because by this stage, it was clear that the children were “bored” with X but they were not “traumatized”. In the end, it turned out that M was being influenced by her mother, brother, and friends wanted her to “fight” X.
19. Strategically, it did not make sense for M to “fight” on this issue. As it was, access would still be fairly restricted anyway. Moreover, there were other issues to deal with so I was concerned that M’s insistence on “fighting” would not reflect well on her, as well as M spending unnecessary legal fees. Eventually, as M kept insisting that I “fight” because her mother, brother and friends wanted her to “fight” X, I proposed that she sought a 2nd opinion. When M escalated her rhetoric of denying X access for no good reason, I told M that she should seek the assistance of another lawyer who was confident of achieving such an objective.
20. As I was preparing to discharge myself, M engaged new lawyers. I understand the M eventually settled for on terms that I had previously advised her to settle on. Had M listened to my advise instead of allowing 3rd parties to hijack her divorce, matters would have been resolved more amicably, earlier, for less cost and with much less unnecessary drama.
21. Each case is different. The facts are different, and the mix of personalities are entirely different. As a lawyer, I advise in my clients’ best interests with the limited knowledge that I have of the situation at any particular point in time. From observations, I have gathered certain truths about children:
21.1 Children are more observant than you think they are. While they may not understand the exact nature of your dispute, children pick up on feelings. They know when something is wrong, so it is not a good idea to “lie” to them.
21.2 Children are more resilient than we think they are. This point flows from the point above. Many times, adults do not tell children what is happening on the pretext of “protecting” the children. But when children see a conflicting reality from what you tell them, they may get confused. Unlike adults, children may not be able to articulate their emotions so well, so any emotional issues may go undetected. It may be best to be honest with children while being mindful of being sensitive. When in doubt, do seek the advice of professionals such as counsellors or child psychiatrists for tips on how to approach difficult conversations with your children.
21.3 Children can be good “diplomats”. In some acrimonious divorces, children find themselves having to please both sides. After all, to them, your divorce does not change who their parents are. Some children even “play” both sides rather well, telling each parent what they want to hear.
21.4 Most importantly, and related to the point above, is that children are unable to hide their true feelings for long. Bad mouthing your ex-spouse or brainwashing your child does NOT work. Put the child before a trained counsellor or discerning Judge, and the child is going to sing like a bird their true feelings.
22. Disputes involving children are never easy. More so when each matter involves a living, feeling being. As a professional, it is important that we just do our job guided by our sense of duty rather than emotions. It is after all our job to be the level-headed ones in some highly charged situation. Yet we need to be constantly mindful of how our jobs have a real impact on real people. For every “Case” above, I remember each of the children’s names many years after the relevant cases conclude. Although I have never met most of the children, I feel a strange familiarity to them from working so closely on a matter which affected them so distinctly.