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Islamic Family Law and Justice for Muslim Women

Muslim women in Kabul. (twocentsworth/Flickr)

Muslim women in Kabul. (twocentsworth/Flickr)

Procedure and Case Management, Singapore

Special presentation by Halijah Mohammad from Singapore
This session is basically centred upon the efficiency of the Singapore Syariah court system, and the possibilities of its adaptability in other countries. There are several basic factors facilitating the efficiency of the system in Singapore. Firstly, the physical size of the country is very small. Secondly, due to the physical size of the country, it is easy to control the population and to enforce court orders. A small number of Syariah judges are sufficient to deal with all the Syariah matters. Thirdly, the Syariah courts are placed under the Ministry of Community Development, not under the Ministry of Law. This facilitates the efficiency of the counselling department. The main points to be noted may be summarised as follows:

The Amendments to the law in 1999 introduced the office of Registrar, to enhance the efficiency of the existing system. Currently, two court presidents are assisted by one registrar.

  • Counselling is a mandatory process and the counsellors are trained social workers. The process begins with the lodging of complaints to the Registrar at the Syariah courts. After going through the mandatory counselling, the parties are asked as to whether they still wish to proceed with the divorce. If that is the case, the legal process commences with the issue of divorce summons (upon payment of $45).
  • Case statement is included in the divorce summons, that is, a list of various particulars such as the grounds for divorce; the matrimonial properties; the names and ages of children, etc. The summons and case statement are served on the defendant and both parties, husband and wife, are required to attend the hearing. This helps to avoid the problem of “missing defendants”.
  • The defendant is required to submit a statement for a “cross-petition” purpose. This system is very helpful, giving a chance for the defendant to express his/her side of story (especially in the case where the husband is divorcing the wife). On the hearing day, the court would hear the plaintiff’s claim and the defendant’s cross-petition. If a party does not have legal counsel, the court officials would assist in filling out the required forms. In the mediation session, there are two full-time mediators in the Syariah courts; one is an ustaz and the other a trained legal officer.
  • Pre-trial conference is a process of discussion before trial with the Registrar. Some terms of agreement may be recorded regarding some of the issues in the divorce, such as custody, etc., thus minimising the contentious issues.
  • Interlocutory application can be made on, for instance: Production of documents before hearing or for interim custody.
  • Use of Affidavit --.the value of affidavit evidence is to avoid or minimise oral evidence. After the case is heard, the lawyers may provide written submission. The full use of affidavit evidence can result in a case being completed within one-year.
  • There is a Right to Appeal to the Appeal Board. The decision of Appeal Board is final. The appeal judgment is usually completed within 6 months.
  • Night courts - The system was introduced to help clear up the backlog of cases. Four ad-hoc judges were appointed to hear cases in the evening. There is no backlog of cases in Singapore now.
  • Hakam - In 90% of the cases, the hakam would ask the husbands to pronounce divorce. This facilitates the divorce process, and shows an understanding attitude towards women who would usually file for divorce only when the marriage has irrevocably broken down.

In looking at the legal reforms, the speaker, Halijah, reminded the participants that the larger socio-economic and political circumstances which are peculiar to Singapore must also be taken into account. The government is extremely obsessed with ‘efficiency’ as it ultimately affects economic productivity and investments. One important ingredient in this regard is the legal infrastructure. Moreover, Singapore is a first world country where ‘institutionalized corruption’ is not allowed to exist. The problems that Singapore has to deal with, are thus different from those problems faced by other developing countries such as Pakistan. The government also has the political will to ensure the efficient administration of the Syariah family law and the smooth functioning of the Syariah court system. The 17% Muslim population - albeit a minority - cannot be ignored by the government.