COURTS PUT DOMESTIC DISPUTES ON HOLD TO SAVE MARRIAGES
Tribunals are imposing ‘cooling-off’ periods to allow potential divorcees to reconsider. Cao Yin reports.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”