HK is taking steps to put children first in divorce cases and should do more
The break-up of a marriage is a painful experience. The trauma is even more poignant when a consensus on child custody cannot be reached. It is not uncommon to see children used as weapon by warring parents in the courtroom as a result, with the proceedings dragging for years in some extreme cases. Such disputes only add to the ordeal of the parties involved and weigh down our judges.
The judiciary is finally taking steps to address the situation. Under a child dispute resolution scheme, family judges will be more proactive in guiding the focus of the proceedings, making sure the children's best interests are served. The move, to be launched next month, is said to be similar to pre-trial review hearings in criminal cases, in which judges give directions before moving to a formal trial.
It is encouraging to see judges taking a more active conciliatory role in times of family distress. When estranged couples file a divorce, they often pass the point of no return and seek to settle the relationship according to their own interests. But the children, who often do not have a say in the process, are the biggest victim. It is, therefore, reassuring that the judges are to step in earlier and prevent the father or mother from winning what they see as a court battle at the expense of the children's interest. Narrowing the focus to issues pertinent to the divorce also helps reduce animosity and bickerings.
Family court exercising more control in cases involving divorce and child custody is only the first of many steps needed to improve the situation. Last December, the government finally moved to consult the public on a Law Reform Commission's proposal in 2005 to reform child custody in divorce. Instead of fighting for sole custody rights, the divorced couple will share joint responsibility for the children.
The proposal appears to be the right step forward. It wisely puts the emphasis on the child's interest above anything else. The consultation has finished in April. It's time the government moves expeditiously and decides on the way forward.