27 April 2017
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Supreme Court Note: TMO v TMP [2017] SGCA 14 (jurisdiction and power of Syariah Court, High Court over Muslim marriages dissolved abroad)

Supreme Court Note
08 Mar 2017

The Court of Appeal held that parties married under Muslim law who obtain a divorce from a foreign court may seek relief from the Singapore civil courts for the division of matrimonial assets.

In this case, the parties were married under Muslim Law in Singapore. Years later, a divorce was obtained from the Johor Sharia Court. The wife subsequently sought an order for the division of matrimonial assets in the Singapore Syariah Court (“the Syariah Court”). TheSyariah Court, however, refused to grant the order. It considered that it did not have jurisdiction to make the division order pursuant to s 52(3) of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (Cap 3, 2009 Rev Ed) because it had not granted the parties’ divorce.

The wife then applied to the Family Justice Courts in Singapore for the division order pursuant to s 121G of the Women’s Charter (Cap 353, 2009 Rev Ed). The Family Justice Courts refused to grant the order on grounds that they did not have jurisdiction or power to do so under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap 322, 2007 Rev Ed) (“SCJA”) or the Women’s Charter. The High Court on appeal similarly refused to grant the order. It considered that s 3(2) of the Women’s Charter, which excluded the application of the statute in specific respects to parties married under Muslim law,prevented the High Court from exercising its powers under s 121G in the present case. The wife appealed again.

The Court of Appeal held that the High Court did have jurisdiction and power to grant the division order under s 121G of the Women’s Charter. First of all, the Court noted that where a matter did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court, the High Court retained residual jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to ss 16 and 17 of the SCJA. Next, the Court, in reviewing the legislative materials on s 3(2) of the Women’s Charter, considered that the purpose of the provision was to manage possible overlaps between Muslim law and non-Muslim law arising from the concurrent jurisdiction of both the High Court and the Syariah Court over a matter, by providing for the circumstances under which each system of law would or could apply to Muslim marriages. When regard was had to that purpose, it must follow that s 3(2) was to be construed subject to a very important qualification. This was that where the Syariah Court had no jurisdiction over a matrimonial dispute involving parties to a Muslim marriage and the High Court took residual jurisdiction over the matter as a consequence, s 3(2) of the Women’s Charter would not apply at all. This was because there would be no conflict of jurisdiction since it was the High Court alone that had jurisdiction, and in the circumstances, there would be no basis for the disapplication of the Women’s Charter. To construe s 3(2) otherwise would lead to a legal vacuum and there was nothing to suggest that this was the intention behind the provision.

On the facts, the Court of Appeal agreed that the Syariah Court did not have jurisdiction over the wife’s application. It followed that the High Court would have residual jurisdiction over the application pursuant to ss 16 and 17 of the SCJA and that the exclusion under s 3(2) of the Women’s Charter did not apply at all. The High Court was therefore empowered to grant relief under s 121G of the Women’s Charter, including an order for division of matrimonial assets in the present case.

At TMO v TMP [2017] SGCA 14, paras 25, 26, 27, 33, 53, 54 and 55. To view the judgment, click <here>.

Disclaimer: The above is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court. The full judgment of the Court is the only authoritative document.