A counsellor, listener and problem-solver — family lawyers play multi-faceted role

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SINGAPORE — Earlier this year, family lawyer Rajan Chettiar received a call from a client undergoing a divorce. The client wanted to commit suicide, and Mr Chettiar had to talk him out of it, urging him to see a counsellor.

“I spend day and night worrying about such people,” said Mr Chettiar. For this particular case, he texted his client daily for a week “to make sure that he’s alive”. The divorce was finalised, and the case has since concluded.

For Ms Gloria James-Civetta, who is also a family lawyer, she regularly offers her clients’ children books and colouring pads to keep them engaged while at her office. She has even bonded with them over ice-cream, in a bid to find out which parent they prefer to live with.

The multi-faceted role played by family lawyers was highlighted by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the Family Justice Practice Forum on Friday (July 14). In his opening address, CJ Menon described these lawyers as the “best first responders” to their clients.

Apart from being problem solvers, family lawyers also have to educate their clients to make good decisions or refer them to seek the appropriate help — be it therapy, co-parenting classes or financial planning. Skills such as active and observant listening are necessary, the Chief Justice said.

“It is the lawyer who comes into contact with the parties well before the court does. Being bound to their clients by privilege, lawyers can afford their clients a safe space to confide in them, and then appropriately counsel them and help them in their quest for a more hopeful future than the past from which they have come,” said CJ Menon.

Lawyers have the opportunity to influence the client’s approach towards the dispute and their willingness to cooperate and reduce conflict, he added.

While taking into account the best interests of the child has been emphasised in family law, CJ Menon acknowledged that this — coupled with the relationships within the family — might throw up ethical dilemmas for lawyers.

For example, a client might want to film his interaction with his child to show the court evidence of a good relationship. Or a client could claim she was punched by the other parent in front of their child, and would like to call the traumatised child as a witness. There are no textbook answers to these scenarios, said CJ Menon. However, he noted that a group of family lawyers, academics and members of the judiciary have been working on ethical guidelines for the profession.

There is also the child representative scheme, where lawyers — who are not involved in the cases — are appointed as representatives to ensure that the child’s best interests are considered in divorce proceedings. There are 26 lawyers on the scheme, and representatives have been appointed in 24 cases since 2014.

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of a custody battle, noted Ms James-Civetta. “Even if I tell my client, let’s not put in this (sensitive) information in our affidavit. But if the other party includes that information, my client would ask me why I didn’t put it in,” she said.

But for all the challenges they face, the work that family lawyers do leaves a lasting impression on their clients. Mr Chettiar recounted helping a divorced client relocate to Australia with his then 11-year-old son a few years ago. Till today, the son sends letters — twice a year — to Mr Chettiar to update him on his life, and regularly includes a photocopy of his school result slip. “All these make me feel that this work is so important. It’s very tough, and it’s emotionally draining. We’re constantly giving and giving,” he said.

Agreeing, Ms James-Civetta said that she tries to be “not just a lawyer, but a listening ear” to her clients. She has enrolled herself and her staff in counselling courses, and they make use of the skills learnt — maintaining eye contact and having the right body language for example — in their work.

Around 350 family lawyers, policymakers, mental health professionals and social workers attended the one-day forum on Friday, where discussions on family violence and ethical issues were part of the programme.

Source > http://m.todayonline.com/singapore/counsellor-listener-and-problem-solver-family-lawyers-play-multi-faceted-role