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Counselling centre inside Bombay High Court for litigants in matrimonial cases

Our Story of the Week is on a counselling centre that has been opened inside the premises of the Bombay High Court to reach out to litigants in matrimonial cases. This is the first such facility opened in a high court anywhere in India.

Petitioners at family courts are often dealing with acute emotional conflict and distress, something that gets overlooked. In an important move to address that, a counselling centre has been set up at the Bombay High Court, an important step towards recognizing the need to address the mental health of litigants in a setting where they are most vulnerable.

The centre is part of the Sukoon project started by the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in partnership with Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI). They have been running such centres at family courts in Maharashtra for 18 months.

Over 500 litigants have benefitted with Sukoon which works with key stakeholders including judges and staff, to build their sensitivities. So far, over 100 judges, advocates and marriage counsellors have been trained.

Couples come to the Family Courts to make important decisions about their marital relationships. The often lengthy, tedious, and acrimonious litigation process triggers anxiety for several litigants. This complicates matters for several litigants and may even get in the way of the litigation process. For several litigants their personal, social, interpersonal life comes to a complete halt during the process of litigation. Sukoon becomes the first place where they can have an outlet for their distress and where their emotions are acknowledged. Our aim is to provide support which will help them cope with the process of litigation. - Aparna Joshi & Amrita Joshi, Project Directors, Sukoon

The counselling is offered free of cost and the centre's location inside the court means the support is available at crisis moments.

The team offers the instance of a woman who was forced to file for divorce after her husband refused to leave his partner. Her emotional distress was evident during psychotherapy sessions. "The counsellor helped the client with several strategies of coping with her stress and also helped her understand her own feelings better and accept those feelings, says the Sukoon team. The counsellor also helped the client find her sources of strength to help cope with painful memories. This was accompanied with techniques to help deal with everyday life stressors. Over time, the client felt validated and was able to gain confidence in herself.

The Sukoon centre at the Bombay High Court offers counselling services to individuals, couples and families involved in matrimonial cases. Services will also be offered to children.

At family courts, the centre has provided workshops for litigants on stress management and dealing with separation using group therapy. "Such workshops and group sessions lead to non-confrontational modes of seeking help, a skill we have found to be helpful. Also, watching and meeting others go through similar struggles makes them feel that they aren't alone in dealing with such crises, says he team.

The intervention, says Rajvi Mariwala, Co-founder, Mariwala Health initiative aims to help overcome the many systemic hurdles. "As against the many thousands of cases that come up before each family court in the state, there are only 43 such counsellors across Maharashtra. The lack of infrastructure, interference by other members of the judicial system, and the lack of a gender-sensitive framework, to name just a few of the reported problems.

The Sukoon team works with marriage counsellors to move beyond simply facilitating litigation, adds Mariwala, and focus on providing emotional support. "Sukoon's counsellors address without shying away from questioning dominant notions, and these centers serve as a space for women to safely explore their relationships, and negotiate issues around power and gender. Counsellors are trained to adopt an accepting approach to mental health care provision that is sensitive and non-discriminatory.

It is important to add that the services offered are available to litigants regardless of gender, however, there is an acknowledgement that women and children are more vulnerable as they are more subject to the barriers of discrimination, inequality, power and violence..

The journey from one's private space to a public one like a courtroom is fraught with anxiety. It's a journey marked with intense emotional undertones. Sukoon offers a confidential, safe space to cope with that trauma.

What makes this important and noteworthy is its potential to be scaled to family courts across India, as Mariwala points out. "Because the project works in partnership with the judicial system it is scalable and sustainable and we hope to expand it to other states and ensure that litigants have access to mental health care when required.

ALSO READ:Bridge the Gap campaign seeks to make mental health an election issue in the 2019 elections

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