2018 Women in Mediation: 

An Interview with The Honourable Justice Debbie Ong




The Honourable Justice Debbie Ong
Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts

Justice Debbie Ong joined the Supreme Court in 2014 as Judicial Commissioner, and was appointed Judge of the High Court on 30 September 2017 and Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts on 1 October 2017. 

She earned her Bachelor of Laws from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1989 and Master of Laws at the University of Cambridge in 1991. 

She began her legal career as an Associate Professor at NUS’s Faculty of Law in 1989, specialising in family law. A published writer, her accolades include winning the SAL Merit Award and Legal Aid Bureau Amicus Award. 

Justice Ong currently co-chairs the inter-agency Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System.


Q1. As first a family law professor and now the presiding judge of the Family Justice Courts, could you share what your experience with mediation has been?

I was a volunteer family court mediator when I was a law professor, for about a decade. I think that a special type of energy is required from a mediator – patience and tenacity are necessary. 

Family mediation demands a certain sort of stamina, especially when you work with parties in respect of emotionally charged disputes for hours and hours. The stamina probably comes from the fulfilling nature of the work. I find helping families resolve disputes by agreement very meaningful contribution – I have always believed that the court should be the forum of last resort for family disputes. 

Mediation is especially suitable for resolving family-related disputes; it is a key resolution process in our “less adversarial, child-centred” approach in our family justice system. When parties are going through serious family conflicts and suffering the pain of broken relationships, they may not be their “best selves” who, under normal circumstances, would have been able to make more rational and well-thought out decisions. Mediation allows better and more “harmonious” communications. 

Ultimately the parties as parents know their children best; they are the ones who are responsible for their care and the joy of parenting is theirs. As the Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts (FJC), I am reinforced in this view – any day I see parents reach agreements on co-parenting their children after effective mediation is a happy day for me.


Q2. What are some of the biggest challenges you perceive for promoting mediation in the legal industry?

First, the mindset is a challenge - is there conviction and confidence that mediation is the appropriate dispute resolution process? 

In order to strengthen such confidence, a high quality of mediation must be maintained. A positive and effective mediation experience goes a very long way in influencing a user’s attitude towards mediation. Conversely, a negative experience with what one perceives as ineffective mediation may put one off mediation for a long time, if not forever.

So, you could say that ensuring a sufficient supply of highly qualified and effective mediators at the right place and time is also one of the challenges. Yet another challenge is the unsurprising concern of whether mediation will render lawyers redundant. 

I think that the services of a good family lawyer cannot be replaced by mediation – while FJC is working hard to increase access to justice by simplifying processes and enhancing mediation opportunities, these do not necessarily mean an easier journey for a party – the divorce process is never easy. 

A good family lawyer renders valuable services to a party through this difficult divorce journey, including assisting the party to participate effectively in mediation and in processes that will minimise acrimony; he or she can give good legal advice on what is a fair outcome and in reaching arrangements that supports the children’s best interests. 

It is important to understand the role that a lawyer plays in our justice system.


Q3. What are some of your proudest moments relating to mediation that you have observed in your experience?

Do you mean my proudest moments as a mediator? That is a hard question. 

There is a case that appears etched in my memory - not that it was a proud moment. I mediated a case where a main point of disagreement involved the Mother’s insistence that the Father should not have access to their toddler on Chinese New Year’s Day. She was concerned that when the Father takes their son visiting from home to home, the child will not be eating proper meals but snacking on unhealthy titbits the entire day instead. 

I urged her to think on alternatives acceptable to her such as the Father ensuring their son was given his nutritious formula milk regularly throughout that day, and highlighted that it was only for that one day. She appeared to see a new perspective beyond the narrow concern that mired her in an immovable place. 

Perhaps she trusted my assistance as emanating from empathy from another mother - I am not sure - but I felt blessed to play a part in a very connected world where we live ordinary and full lives taking on similar roles as a mother, father, husband or wife.


Q4. What is your view on the role that women mediators have to play in the development of Singapore's mediation scene?

If indeed Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, then there would be distinctive strengths that each gender brings to mediation work. 

There may be X factors (or should I say, XX?) typically found in Venusians that make them effective mediators, and I think there are.


Q5. What are your hopes for the mediation movement going forward?

Remember those challenges I have shared earlier? May we meet those challenges well. 

I would like to see mediation as the natural, preferred choice for dispute resolution. Court adjudication ought to be the option of last resort. Even at the point of hearing, if the parties are willing and ready, the court can still allow them to resolve their dispute harmoniously through mediation. 

I also hope that we can place opportunities for effective mediation in the earliest stages of one’s journey, as well as at every appropriate stage in the entire process.

(Published 30 March 2018 by the Singapore International Mediation Institute)