COURTS PUT DO­MES­TIC DIS­PUTES ON HOLD TO SAVE MAR­RIAGES

Tri­bunals are im­pos­ing ‘cool­ing-off’ pe­ri­ods to al­low po­ten­tial di­vorcees to re­con­sider. Cao Yin re­ports.

China Daily - - CHINA - Con­tact the writer at caoyin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In March, a cou­ple in An­hui prov­ince filed for di­vorce at a court af­ter a num­ber of ar­gu­ments about triv­ial fam­ily mat­ters. How­ever, in­stead of grant­ing their re­quest, the judge im­posed a “cool­ing-off pe­riod” of one month to give the cou­ple time to re­con­sider.

The judge at Yixiu Dis­trict Peo­ple’s Court in An­qing city urged the cou­ple to cher­ish life with their fam­ily, and took time to ex­plain the prob­lems that could arise re­gard­ing the al­lo­ca­tion of prop­erty and child sup­port if the di­vorce was granted.

Four weeks later, the cou­ple re­turned and told the court that they were drop­ping the case be­cause they had de­cided to re­main mar­ried.

“Some cou­ples, es­pe­cially younger ones, are more sus­cep­ti­ble to im­pul­sive break ups. The cool­ing-off pe­riod al­lows them to think twice and solve their dis­putes sen­si­bly,” read a state­ment re­leased by the court.

In the past two years, cool­ing-off pe­ri­ods — last­ing from two weeks to three months — have been im­posed on cou­ples fil­ing for di­vorce in 118 courts in places as wide­spread as Bei­jing and the prov­inces of Sichuan and Shan­dong.

The move is part of a twoyear pi­lot pro­gram to re­form hear­ings in­volv­ing do­mes­tic dis­putes im­ple­mented by the Supreme Peo­ple’s Court in 2016. Dur­ing the pe­riod of re­flec­tion, courts do not de­liver a ver­dict; in­stead, they in­ves­ti­gate the fam­ily’s sit­u­a­tion or of­fer cou­ples mar­riage guid­ance.

At the end of last month, the max­i­mum du­ra­tion of the cool­ing-off pe­riod was of­fi­cially lim­ited to three months and writ­ten into a guide­line for han­dling do­mes­tic dis­pute cases is­sued by the top court. Psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sis­tance and so­cial work­ers’ sur­veys of trou­bled fam­i­lies were added to the guide­line at the same time.

Con­flict al­le­vi­a­tion

Guo Jie, a judge at the In­ter­me­di­ate Peo­ple’s Court in San­ming, Fu­jian prov­ince, wel­comed cool­ing-off pe­ri­ods and said the con­cept has played a ma­jor role in al­le­vi­at­ing con­flict, es­pe­cially be­tween new­ly­weds and cou­ples with chil­dren age 16 or younger.

How­ever, she noted that cool­ing-off pe­ri­ods would not be ap­pro­pri­ate for all di­vorce pro­ceed­ings — for ex­am­ple, those in­volv­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence where ap­proval is usu­ally granted with­out de­lay.

Some crit­ics have com­plained that the move in­ter­feres with the free­dom to di­vorce, but Wang Peng, a judge’s as­sis­tant at Dongcheng Dis­trict Peo­ple’s Court in Bei­jing, said the fi­nal de­ci­sion lies solely with the lit­i­gants.

“The pe­riod of re­flec­tion doesn’t mean that a cou­ple must re­main mar­ried. In fact, some peo­ple spend the time clar­i­fy­ing the di­vi­sion of prop­erty and ar­rang­ing child sup­port. We want to solve do­mes­tic dis­putes ef­fec­tively and min­i­mize the dam­age to lit­i­gants, not in­ter­fere in their de­ci­sions,” he said.

Mi­nor com­plaints

Last year, Guo Jing, a judge at Haid­ian Dis­trict Peo­ple’s Court in Bei­jing, handed a cou­ple a two-week cool­ing-off pe­riod af­ter dis­cov­er­ing that their prob­lems were rel­a­tively triv­ial.

“The wife didn’t have any ma­jor com­plaints about her hus­band, such as com­mit­ting do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or hav­ing an af­fair. She just com­plained about his bad tem­per and fre­quent so­cial­iz­ing,” she said. “The cool­ing-off pe­riod can play a ma­jor role in help­ing peo­ple with mi­nor fam­ily prob­lems who im­pul­sively de­cide to di­vorce.”

She com­pared the pe­riod of re­flec­tion to a “brake” on a mar­riage that gives peo­ple time to re­con­sider their ac­tions, and said it worked well in about 20 per­cent of the cases she han­dled last year.

Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs, the di­vorce rate has risen rapidly na­tion­wide since 2002. More than 4 mil­lion cou­ples ended their mar­riages in 2016, while be­tween Jan­uary and June last year, 1.85 mil­lion cou­ples filed for di­vorce.

Chen Aiwu, a law pro­fes­sor at Nan­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity in Jiangsu prov­ince, said it is es­sen­tial for courts to es­tab­lish that a mar­riage can be saved be­fore they im­pose a

Guo Jie, judge at the In­ter­me­di­ate Peo­ple’s Court in San­ming, Fu­jian prov­ince

pe­riod of re­flec­tion.

“If some lit­i­gants dis­play ex­treme be­hav­ior be­fore go­ing to court, such as threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide, judges should pro­vide psy­cho­log­i­cal aid, not me­di­a­tion,” he said.

Guo Jie, the judge from Fu­jian, voiced the same opin­ion. “The cool­ing-off pe­riod is not de­signed to force cou­ples to re­main mar­ried,” she said. “Lit­i­gants can use the time to re­con­sider, while courts can use the time to iden­tify the best way to re­solve the dis­pute.”

Sur­veys, as­sis­tance

Since 2016, Guo Jie’s court has in­vited so­cial work­ers and psy­chol­o­gists to con­duct pre­trial sur­veys of trou­bled fam­i­lies to es­tab­lish the roots of do­mes­tic dis­putes.

So­cial work­ers from in­de­pen­dent bod­ies visit the lit­i­gants’ work­places, com­mu­ni­ties and neigh­bors over a pe­riod of 10 to 15 days be­fore sub­mit­ting a re­port to help judges de­ter­mine if a mar­riage can be saved.

“We don’t com­pel lit­i­gants to take part in the sur­vey. We fully pro­tect the pri­vacy of those who are will­ing to speak with us,” Guo Jie said, adding that sur­veys were con­ducted in 20 of the 70-plus do­mes­tic dis­pute cases her court han­dled last year.

In Bei­jing, the court in Dongcheng dis­trict of­ten in­vites peo­ple in­volved in do­mes­tic dis­putes to dis­cuss their prob­lems with judges in an in­for­mal room dec­o­rated with so­fas, tele­vi­sions and a cir­cu­lar table.

The court has also co­op­er­ated with the Dongcheng Women’s Fed­er­a­tion to pro­vide psy­cho­log­i­cal help for lit­i­gants who re­quest it.

“Some peo­ple be­come too emo­tional to ac­cept sug­ges­tions from their part­ners or oth­ers close to them,” said Wang Xi­uwen, one of the judges.

Zheng Hong, a me­di­a­tor at the court, said: “Some lit­i­gants may pre­fer to speak about their dis­pute in a cosy en­vi­ron­ment, while oth­ers will un­bur­den them­selves to psy­chol­o­gists. No mat­ter what method they choose, we hope to help them re­solve their dis­pute peace­fully and avoid any new trauma that could be caused by con­flict.”

Pre­vent­ing harm

Guo Jie, from Fu­jian, has never re­garded rul­ing on do­mes­tic dis­putes as triv­ial le­gal work.

“Some lit­i­gants have phys­i­cally harmed them­selves or other peo­ple when their con­flicts weren’t re­solved sat­is­fac­to­rily,” she said.

She re­called a case in 2014, when she had to stop pro­ceed­ings and take emer­gency ac­tion to pro­tect a woman who re­fused to ac­cept her hus­band’s re­quest for a di­vorce and dismissed Guo Jie’s sug­ges­tion that di­vorce would be the best op­tion for the cou­ple.

“She screamed at me and climbed up to the court­room win­dow with the in­ten­tion of com­mit­ting sui­cide. We had to erect a safety net at the base of the build­ing to pro­tect her, and spent a long time paci­fy­ing her,” she said.

In 2016, Ma Caiyun, a judge in Bei­jing, was shot and killed by a man who was un­happy with a rul­ing Ma had made about the di­vi­sion of prop­erty re­lat­ing to his di­vorce.

“Some­times we think we have solved a case in ac­cor­dance with the law, but the dis­pute still ex­ists. That’s why we are tak­ing mea­sures to dis­cover the roots of con­flict and mak­ing greater ef­forts to al­le­vi­ate them,” Guo Jie said.

Dif­fi­cul­ties, chal­lenges

Courts not only face dif­fi­cul­ties re­solv­ing prob­lem­atic cases, but also have to con­tend with low lev­els of staffing and inadequate fi­nan­cial sup­port.

For ex­am­ple, the court in Dongcheng em­ploys 29 of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing nine judges, to han­dle do­mes­tic dis­putes, but more than 1,000 cases have been filed an­nu­ally since 2016, and the num­ber con­tin­ues to rise.

“The la­bor short­age means we can­not de­vote as much time as we would like to ev­ery case. It’s only when pro­ceed­ings are ex­tremely com­plex that we are able to fully in­ves­ti­gate, con­duct sur­veys and in­vite psy­chol­o­gists to me­di­ate,” said Wang Xi­uwen.

In ad­di­tion, Guo Jie said a lack of funds means courts are un­able to em­ploy enough so­cial work­ers and psy­chol­o­gists. She urged au­thor­i­ties to pro­vide spe­cial fund­ing to en­sure greater im­prove­ments in the han­dling of do­mes­tic dis­putes.

“Higher salaries would help to im­prove ef­fi­ciency,” she said, adding that in­creased fund­ing would al­low co­op­er­a­tion be­tween courts and sup­port ser­vices to be­come stronger and more ef­fec­tive.

The pe­riod of re­flec­tion doesn’t mean that a cou­ple must re­main mar­ried . ... We want to solve do­mes­tic dis­putes ef­fec­tively and min­i­mize the dam­age to lit­i­gants, not in­ter­fere in their de­ci­sions.”

SHI YU / CHINA DAILY

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