Sukoon: A Counselling Model for Family Courts across India?

Articles Reporter's Diary Sukanya Sharma

By Sukanya Sharma

“Itni shakti hume dena data

man ka vishwas kamzor ho na

hum chalen nek raste pe hamse

bhoolkar bhi koi bhool ho na…”

 

(Give us so much strength, O Lord,

that the faith in our hearts never wavers.

may we walk the path of goodness

and we don’t make a mistake even accidentally…)

 

Every day, before cases are heard at the Thane family court*, judges gather all lawyers, litigants and those inside the court premises to sing a prayer in the morning, we are told. This is a practice that has been going on for years, and still continues till this day.  

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But here’s a brand new initiative to build on the hope and a prayer. On May 2nd this year, the Bombay High Court inaugurated a first of its kind counselling service on its premises. A field action project of the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, funded by the Mariwala Health Initiative, Sukoon provides counselling to litigants at family courts in Maharashtra free of cost. This builds on the initiative that has already been up and running in Family Cours of Bandra, Thane and the District and Sessions Court, Kalyan. 

Litigants — both individuals and couples in distress — are provided a confidential and safe space to share stories of distress, in close partnership with the family court system. Sukoon aims to “enhance the mental health of litigants dealing with interpersonal conflict and emotional distress” the team behind the initiative tells The Health Collective, adding that over the past 18 months they have benefitted over 500 litigants. The project has also ensured the training of more than 100 judges, advocates and marriage counsellors. So is this a scalable PPP and something other states can aim to replicate? 

Sukoon Project for Mental Health Counselling
Image by The Health Collective

 

We spoke to psychotherapist and Sukoon Project Director Aparna Joshi (who is also Assistant Professor at the TISS Centre for Human Ecology) for more information, and did an e-interview with Rajvi Mariwala, Director, Mariwala Health Initiative, which currently funds all 4 counselling centres in operation.

Excerpts of our interviews follow.

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Q: What is the thought and approach behind Sukoon?

Aparna Joshi: I used to work with this organisation called Bapu Trust … and we had started a counselling centre for litigants who were coming to family courts for matrimonial issues. We ran this project and realised that there is a lot of stress these couples experience. The whole institution of marriage – getting married, remaining married – is such a norm in our society. It accords you status, or a sense of belonging, (and) there is a tremendous amount of pressure on people to fulfil these developmental milestones. Once this particular institution, which is given so much importance, does not work for you, it creates a lot of impact in terms of mental health and stress. Unlike the West, the conflicts are not just their (couple) conflicts, but there is also a familial dynamic or socio-cultural norm, gender, sexuality, caste politics… all of that. They go through their own mechanisms of seeking help, and perhaps these mechanisms do not work and then their marriage, which is such a private phenomenon, is brought into such a public space.

After 5 years, this centre was shut down for funding reasons. My colleague from TISS, Amrita Joshi and I decided that there is a need to revive a service like this, so almost two and a half years back we revived this service under the name of Sukoon with this very objective: that people who come to legal structures for matrimonial issues, issues of separation or divorce, child custody, or even maintenance, nullity… or even violence require definite amount of support in resolving this conflict or amicably separating without damaging themselves or the other person.

Two years ago we started this project in two family courts in Bandra and another in Thane (and) in the District and Sessions Court, Kalyan. We realised soon that women are also filing cases under the Domestic Violence Act 2005 and that this also is causing a huge mental health impact. We thought of expanding our work not just to matrimonial issues, but those concerning domestic violence as well. We will be starting another centre with the Bandra Legal Aid Society, where a lot of women come to address the issues of domestic violence.

Q: How do you approach the people?

Aparna Joshi: One strategy is to provide services directly to the litigants –  direct intervention. These could be individual litigants or couples in distress. We provide counselling services to them. We also work with them by holding workshops on communication, or workshops on respectful conversations. We also have some innovative strategies for couples in order to improve their well-being and reduce their distress. We have art-based methods also. We have started some art corners within the court premises, where on their court date, while they are there waiting for the judgement or if they are feeling very distressed because of the judgement or seeing their partner, they can reduce their distress using art as a method.

Our second strategy is to work with the system. We work with family court judges, marriage counsellors, we do workshops with them, sensitise them to the idea of mental health. We realised that there are many other court structures which are not as dedicated to matrimonial issues as family courts are. For example, civil courts too are entertaining matrimonial issues. The judge listens to many civil cases, and one of the cases will be a matrimonial issue. Family courts have marriage counsellors who are social workers who do the preliminary work of providing support to litigants, but a civil court does not have that provision.

Q: When Family Courts already provide a marriage counsellor, how can we perceive Sukoon’s role?

Aparna Joshi: We are very clear that we do not want to replicate what the system is doing. The counselling offered by marriage counsellors is mandatory. Which means that if you file a case you have to have at least one session with the marriage counsellor. Given the pendency rate, and the huge amount of case rate they have, it is difficult for them to spend so much time with people. Also, their objective is largely bound by the family court law. Immediacy of problem-solving is what they will look at. They are supposed to submit a report to the judges. They cannot take months to finish a report, there is a sense of immediacy. All of them have a background in social work…*However, in certain cases dealing with the emotional distress of the litigants may be outside their scope of work due to constraints of time, type of cases, and the role expected from them by the system.

 

Sukoon
Image by The Health Collective

When special psychological intervention is required, these counsellors then refer these litigants to us, for example, with cases of suicide (attempts), or self-harm, aggression, and such.

ON TRAINING

With Sukoon, the counsellors that sit with us have a minimum in Masters in Clinical Psychology, counselling … All of them have a training in working with relationship issues, working with a couple and family therapy format. They are also trained to … work with individuals. We are also very careful is our process of selection. A counsellor is required to work with the government’s system, but also someone who knows when to challenge the system. Language is also important. The counsellor has to understand Marathi because a lot of litigants speak Marathi.

We have also signed an MoU with all these legal structures for maintaining confidentiality for all the work that we are doing. You refer them to us, we are accountable to you, but we will never divulge any of the information that they have given to us, and we will never submit a report.

Q: Is it possible to tell if there are people from any particular demographic, or socio-economic background that come to you for help?

Aparna Joshi: Anyone who comes to Bandra family court, it is assumed that they come from nearby areas – so the socio-economic background can vary. But the Domestic Violence (DV) cases that we are going to see, I suspect that they are those from lower, lower middle socio economic status. Not to say DV is not seen across social strata, but to see who is filing a case through legal aid — which is a free service. So therefore a particular social strata is reaching them.

Q: Do… (they) understand the importance/need for mental health and self-care? How do you tackle this limitation/challenge?

Aparna Joshi: We are also experimenting with different labels in articulating what we are doing. In family courts we call our centre a ‘Stress Management Centre’. This is done for two purposes – people understand ‘stress’, they don’t understand mental health. Mental health as a (phrase) is equated with mental illness and therefore leads to a lot of stigma. But stress is a part of our everyday language, so they may acknowledge that they are stressed, but they may not acknowledge that they have a mental health issue.

In High Court we call it ‘Counselling Centre’. Because the High Court wanted to definitively highlight the counselling part of our work and they are fascinated by the concept that we are not working to settle the cases, or expedite the litigation process. Our simple objective is to reduce stress, and improve the individual’s well-being. This facilitates many things. 

People’s life trajectories are stuck when they are in the process of litigation. There’s a lot of blame, anger, conflict which affects their every part – their relationship, trust, safety, work – so we want to unfreeze these locked journeys and help people move on. Sometimes the cases are over a small issue and they are there for 9-10 years. If our process helps expedite the litigation process, then great, but that is not our objective. Our objective is to reduce distress of people who come from private conflict places to public spaces like the courts.

Many people just come to talk to us. They may not understand mental health, but they understand that I can speak to this person, and feel good after talking to them.

Q: How easy or difficult was it to approach a legal structure with an idea that is not ‘objective’ per say?

Aparna Joshi: Family court understands the need for counsellors, because the law states so. Even High Court acknowledges the need for psychological services or well-being services , but they were referring people outside. So when we approached with this concept, we told them we are working as a value added service. We want the High Court to be seen as a legal entity which cares for its litigants’ well-being. A fantastic message to tell people.

 

Sukoon infographic
Image by The Health Collective

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Q: Rajvi, what sparked the idea of opening this centre? Was there any research that the team surfaced, which led you to initiate this model? Can you share more information on that?

Rajvi Mariwala: Research showed us that couples, especially women, accessing Family Courts were dealing with conflict, stress and dense emotional issues with mental health implications. Violence was reported as one of the major stressors experienced by women litigants, this included different forms of violence – physical, psychological, economic, sexual. However, when these women come to a family court setting, the court works towards either reconciliation or settlement through terms of consent in divorce. While these are the most viable options, in a legal setting, there is a need to also acknowledge the emotional upheaval that these women go through. There is also a lot of internalised stigma within such women regarding separation from a spouse, in tandem with larger social structure. In such cases, it
becomes pertinent to have a safe space such as Sukoon’s stress management centre to work upon their mental health and help them deal with all the stigma*. 
Research also showed us that despite the need for mental health care in a court setting, there weren’t trained or appointed mental health professionals available. Thus, Sukoon emerged to bridge this gap and provide accessible, quality, non-discriminatory and free mental health care to all those availing Family Court services — via trained, sensitised, mental health professionals.

Q: Could you share some details of how this model works?

Rajvi Mariwala: The model uses resources already available through the judicial system (for example, space within the court house) to access litigants that want to avail mental health care services such as counselling and art-based therapy. Counsellors use an approach that is gender sensitive, rights-based, non-pathologising, anthologising, and empowering. This service operates from a perspective that recognises, and helps couples negotiate, issues of gender and power.

Q: As a pilot, what has the experience been so far — and how confident are you about this as a scalable or replicable model?

Rajvi Mariwala: Sukoon is a successful model that uses existing infrastructure and resources, and can be scaled to Family Courts across the country. In just 18 months, over 500 litigants have been served and 100+ stakeholders within the Judicial ecosystem across four courts have been trained. Because the project works in partnership with the Judicial system, it is scalable and sustainable. We’re in the process of conducting a research study on interventions made through the project, with the hope to use these findings to enhance services being offered and build replicable models across all Family Courts in the country.

Q: Any challenges to highlight as well? Can you share some of the cost implications?

Rajvi Mariwala: Sukoon adopts a rights-based approach, prioritising a person’s agency throughout the mental health care process. This translates into letting the litigant decide if he or she wants to avail mental health care services, such as counselling, through the centers. However, the Family Court stakeholders (judges, staff) tend to push litigants towards receiving counselling, without inquiring about what the litigant actually wants. Thus, the project simultaneously must work to sensitise those wielding power and authority within the judicial system, to ensure that the rights and choice of the litigant is foremost.

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.

(*This article has been amended to correct that the prayer is offered only in the Thane family court, not all family courts, and to incorporate amended quotes from the interviewees as well as to update the designation of Aparna Joshi.)

Material on The Health Collective cannot substitute for expert advice from a trained professional. 
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Feature Image: Siora Photography on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Sukoon: A Counselling Model for Family Courts across India?

  1. Hi! This is Ms.Neeloferr working as a marriage counsellor at Family court. I like to make a few comments on the article. Its a very good initiative taken up by Sukoon and I wish them my best wishes. Certain errors need to be be corrected to avoid misleading information.
    At first there are no prayers done in.the mornings at all family courts. This was started on a short period and at present many family courts do not practise so.
    Secondly, Sukoon has not had any training with marriage counsellors nor judges nor litigants so far. The department of Human Ecology of TISS had conducted one training for marriage counsellors in 2017.
    Thirdly, we as marriage counsellirs have an MSW degree and have had work experience in dealing with emotionally distress victims in difficult situations before joining as marriage counsellors. When the couples come to court they aren’t seeking marital counselling to strengthen their marriage.They have tried their best to work out their marital concerns in various informal ways before approaching the court. We help the litigants in many ways, one of them.is to see if there is any scope for reconciliation and an openness in working out their marital concerns. Such cases are very rare though. If so, then we do refer for long term psychotherapy or marital therapy if required or to Sukoon.Thus, its incorrect to state that we are not trained in addressing matrimonial distress. Yes, agree that all marriage counsellors may not be skilled enough to do marital therapy although we do.have few marriage counsellors who are skilled to do so. Cases seeking reconciliation are very rare. Lastly, we as counsellors at family courts definitely do not push women undergoing domestic violence to reconcile. We strongly convey a zero tolerance approach towards any kind of violence and this is stated incorrectly in the article. It would be good if corrections are thereby made so as to have accurate information sent across to our readers.

  2. *No training done by ‘Sukoon’ for marriage counsellors.
    *No workshops done for litigants at Bandra Family court.
    *Litigants who are emotionally distressed are definitely attended by us. Its our priority of work to do so inspite of time constraints. Its certainly not outside the scope of our work as mentioned. Cases where the emotional distress is extremely high where there may be a need for medication or person is suicidal/ self -injurious or daily life affected we then definitely refer them to psychiatrists / Sukoon /NGOs /psychotherapists.
    *”Family court understands the need for counsellors, because the law states so”. A brief history which led to this law come into effect… at first, a pilot project was initiated with help of MSW trained experienced counsellors. Their interventions proved highly successful at city civil court. This led to the framing of ‘The Family Court Act’, 1984. This led then to the establishment of the first family court in India with the appointment of qualified marriage counsellors.
    *Last point- as marriage counsellors, we certainly acknowledge the emotional upheaval that women undergone violence go through and help such women in varied ways, one of them being referrals.
    Thank you.

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