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International Women's Day 2021: Divorce Situation under Pandemic

Since 1981 the Hong Kong Federation of Women's Centres has focused on the rights and interests of women at the grassroots level and is concerned with protecting women's legal rights and their living conditions. With the pandemic lasting for more than a year, we noticed that the pandemic had a negative impact on women facing marital conflict. Accordingly, during the period from January 26 to February 11, we surveyed 13 women who were intending to get a divorce or were in the process of getting a divorce. It was found that the pandemic had made it more difficult for women, as family caregivers, in planning their divorce; particularly in getting legal advice or going through the court system. 

 

Pandemic causing delays in divorce for a year

The respondents are mainly housewives and part-time workers. Nine of them are in the process of separation from their spouse or at the initial stage of the divorce application, one of them has almost completed the divorce procedure, and the remaining three are dealing with custody and distribution of matrimonial assets. More than 75% of the respondents have said that the pandemic had an impact on the divorce process, with more than seven of them saying that their divorce plans have been delayed by more than a year. They had to frequent the Family Court, the Home Affairs Office, the Legal Aid Department and the Integrated Family Service Centre, but delayed services from the departments during the pandemic have made them feel helpless. For example, respondents have reported that the waiting time for getting an appointment to obtain divorce advice from relevant organisations has increased by two to three weeks, and there is a lack of guidelines for filling out divorce application forms.

 

Frequent Court schedule changes increased mental stress

30% of the respondents believed that the biggest challenge in getting a divorce during the pandemic was "the frequent schedule changes of the Family Courts, causing high mental stress." The changes of the hearing dates disrupt their daily plans; some even arrived at the door of the court on time and only then realised that the hearing had been rescheduled. With the divorce hanging over their heads, they found it hard to make any plans for their future. At the same time, the insecurity brought on by the pandemic also affected their divorce. 30% of the respondents had said that "insecure work/financial situation prevented them from making plans for a divorce." Some interviewees said bluntly that "employment pressure had made them hesitant in planning for a divorce."

 

Remote hearing is welcomed, but little is known

In fact, the Judiciary has made online services available since April 2020; documents can be submitted via a designated electronic platform and it provides remote hearing guidance, etc. It is a pity though that this measure requires specific instruction of the Court, otherwise physical hearings are assumed. In our survey, none of the respondents were aware of the availability of remote hearings. In fact, they welcome it. Nearly 75% of the respondents said that they would choose it if remote hearing is available. They think that it can speed up the hearing process (38%), enable them to manage their work (23%) and reduce travel time (23%), etc.

 

Case sharing

Phoebe is a divorcee who is currently handling custody and property distribution issues. Her livelihood has been greatly affected by the pandemic. Phoebe, who was employed as a retail casual staff, had her working hours significantly reduced. Phoebe pointed out that the pandemic caused a delay in the legal procedure by a year. The original hearing date in February 2020 has been rescheduled a number of times with the latest being rescheduled to February this year (2021). This had meant that divorce settlement cannot be dealt with for a whole year. Before the decision on settlement, she has already exhausted her savings for paying legal fees; she can only seek help from the Legal Aid Department.

 

However, public services were stagnant during the pandemic, preventing Phoebe from getting information on legal aid and legal advice, making it difficult for her to apply for services. She indicated that oftentimes she can only leave a message for her enquiry and it takes at least one to two days before getting a reply. During the pandemic, even the preparation of application documents was difficult. Phoebe was once required by the Legal Aid Department to submit supporting documents within a week; she had to go everywhere visiting the banks, insurance companies, etc when the pandemic prevention and control measures were in place, which she found very difficult. 

 

The short notice rescheduling of Family Court schedules has caused Phoebe much mental stress. She once received a notice of rescheduling just two days before the hearing, the rescheduling not only disrupted her work arrangements and job search plans, it has also made it hard for her to apply for financial assistance. It affected Phoebe mentally, causing insomnia and much emotional distress, making it necessary for her to see a psychiatrist. Phoebe said that she felt helpless and lonely from the Court's continual schedule delays. She hopes that the case can come to an end as soon as possible, and she hopes that the Government can strengthen the communication of the court's business.

 

Our recommendation

Modernization of the Family Court

We recommend that the Family Court use remote hearings more extensively in order to speed up the hearing of cases accumulated over the past year and help reduce the impact the cases may have on the lives of those involved. This is an opportunity to modernise the Family Court in the long run and improve the operational efficiency of the Family Court.

 

Early and unequivocal Family Court notices to parties involved

We noticed that the Family Court’s scheduling and notification can be improved. We recommend the use of digital notifications (such as SMS) to notify parties of any rescheduled hearings. The Family Court can also make better use of their website to provide clear real-time court notices and their changes, so that the parties concerned can make better use of resources and have clearer understanding of the arrangements.

 

The Government strengthen the digitalization of legal advisory services

In response to the Government's direction of developing the "Hong Kong Legal Cloud", we propose a comprehensive digitalization of legal consulting services. We recommend that the Civil Affairs Department use video conferencing when providing free legal consultation services, and assist the social welfare and legal sectors to upgrade their video conferencing capabilities to fulfill the basic rights of citizens in getting legal advice.

Media Enquiry

Mr Alvin Chung

Senior Development Officer|Development

alvin.chung@womencentre.org.hk
(852) 2386 6256