Headlines published in the last 30 days are listed on SLW.

New law to deter those who breach maintenance orders will improve access to justice: Shanmugam

New law to deter those who breach maintenance orders will improve access to justice: Shanmugam

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 09 May 2023
Author: Syarafana Shafeeq

The changes will improve access to justice, especially for self-represented parties who are involved in maintenance enforcement cases, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

When it comes to family disputes, reforms to maintenance enforcement seek to achieve three things – stronger deterrence against those who do not comply with maintenance orders, more sustainable outcomes for families with genuine financial difficulties, and easier enforcement of orders when they are not complied with.

Overall, these changes will improve access to justice, especially for self-represented parties who are involved in the vast majority of maintenance enforcement cases, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday when the Family Justice Reform Bill was passed in Parliament.

“It is difficult to expect parties to move on when maintenance obligations are breached, especially if repeatedly. Such breaches can also spur retaliatory action, by the other side, and pull both parties further apart,” he said.

He cited the example of an applicant with care and control of the children, who may be tempted to withhold access to them if timely maintenance payments are not made.  

“These disputes that linger and spiral long after the divorce proceedings worsen the anguish for the parties and their children, and also take a toll on those around them,” said Mr Shanmugam.

“With the Maintenance Enforcement Process (MEP), we hope to change a bit of this, and make the post-divorce journey a less fraught one.”

From 2017 to 2019, there were an average of 2,700 applications to enforce maintenance orders each year, and 15 to 20 per cent of applications to enforce Women’s Charter maintenance orders were repeat applications made within the same year.

He noted that some applicants made three to four applications to enforce the same maintenance order within a year.

“Behind these numbers, there are also anxiety, frustration, other real-life consequences, especially for the applicants... They are usually women, struggling with supporting the children, their jobs, while not getting any maintenance.”

As part of the Bill, a new unit of maintenance enforcement officers will be given the power to obtain information about the parties’ assets and means from entities, including banks and government agencies such as the Central Provident Fund Board and Housing Board.

The officers and the court can more accurately distinguish between respondents who cannot pay and those who refuse to pay, placing the court in a better position to determine the appropriate order against a respondent who fails to comply with a maintenance order.

Other changes to be introduced include the court making a show-payment order to require the respondent to prove that maintenance payments have been made by specified dates.

The court will specify a jail term respondents will be liable for if they fail to show proof of payment under the show-payment order. The imprisonment order will not be made only under special circumstances, with consideration to poor health status and old age.

These measures are aimed at reducing repeated non-compliance of those who refuse to pay up despite having the means to do so.

The MEP is part of a broader suite of initiatives and improvements in recent years to facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes for parties, allowing parents to both do their part in co-parenting their children, and move on from the divorce.

In her speech on Monday, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling reiterated MSF’s aim to nurture strong families, and to support them so that they are able to successfully work through adversity.

But where divorce is truly inevitable, MSF seeks to foster therapeutic justice in the divorce process to bring about healing, so that the family can move on, she said.

The ministry has sought to reduce acrimony in the divorce process, and introduced the Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage (DMA) as a sixth fact that parties may cite to show that their marriage has irretrievably broken down.

The introduction of DMA will be brought into force in 2024, she added.

Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) called for maintenance payments to be made gender-neutral.

He said the current maintenance regime arguably reinforces traditional gendered household roles, where men traditionally are regarded as “breadwinners” and women as “homemakers”, by providing that only incapacitated husbands qualify for maintenance.

Ms Sun responded that the courts have refrained from granting high amounts of maintenance to wives who are able to work, even if they had not worked or stopped working for some years.

The court’s goal, she said, is to award reasonable maintenance such that it would meet the financial needs of the wife until she can secure some form of employment.

She also said that the ministry fully appreciates the sacrifice that men make when they step away from their careers to become stay-at-home husbands, adding that the issue of husbands and ex-husbands applying for maintenance payments will continue to be studied.

The Bill will also provide clarity that where the wishes of the child are to be considered by the court, the judge may conduct interviews with the child.  

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) raised concerns about this, saying that a judge is not a trained child counsellor who can discern whether a child may have been coached to express certain views or to say positive things about one parent.

He added: “I have reservations that a judge is able to make a better assessment of the wishes of a child by a simple interview as compared to trained social workers who may spend more hours with the child and observing the expressions of the child.”

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law Rahayu Mahzam said that judicial interviews are not the only nor the preferred method of ascertaining a child’s wishes, but will complement a variety of methods that can be used to hear the child’s voice.

Family judges receive specialised training on how to interview a child, which sensitises them to the needs of a child, any safety concerns and the potential impact that court proceedings may have on the child, she said.

She added that judicial interviews will also be conducted in the presence of court family specialists who are trained and experienced counsellors, psychologists and social workers, who are proficient in interviewing children.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.


Latest Headlines

No content

A problem occurred while loading content.

Previous Next

Terms Of UsePrivacy StatementCopyright 2023 by Singapore Academy of Law
Back To Top