A proposal fraught with difficulty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2012, 12:00am


The government is consulting the public on proposed changes to family law to shift the emphasis of the law away from parents' rights to the responsibility of both parents for any children of broken relationships. Under the reforms, a non-residential parent - generally the father - would become jointly responsible for important decisions, such as emigration, extended overseas travel and change of surname, and entitled to be informed promptly of a range of issues, from change of school to medical issues to moving house.

The courts can already order shared responsibility as an alternative to sole custody, in which the residential parent makes the decisions. The proposed change puts the principle of the best interests of the child, among which right of access to both parents is usually paramount, more squarely at the forefront. Insofar that this would bring Hong Kong into step with more progressive family law jurisdictions such as England, Australia and New Zealand, the move is to be welcomed.

It is, however, a sensitive area where culture, faith, social values and fraught emotions overlap. The best interests of children can become hostage to personal conflict, not to mention lack of consensus between stakeholders such as lawyers, women's groups and social workers. That explains why it has taken officials six years to act on a Law Reform Commission proposal for shared responsibility, and why they have kept an open mind on whether the concept should become law or be promoted through education.

Lawyers support legislation, but women's groups and social workers fear joint parental responsibility could be abused by hostile parents to obstruct or harass a former partner and lead to further litigation. That reflects different perspectives of an issue that would test the wisdom of Solomon, which suggests a case for both legislation and education. We can only hope for children's sake that if the city's low birth rate is ever reversed, that the high divorce rate is, too.