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Resolving family justice and neighbourly disputes: Both enforcement and empathy needed – Opinion

Resolving family justice and neighbourly disputes: Both enforcement and empathy needed – Opinion

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 12 May 2023
Author: Chua Mui Hoong

These are sticky and longstanding problems that have resisted solutions, plaguing many Singapore families who have suffered in silence, sometimes for years; but relief is in sight with changes to the law aimed at tackling these challenges through high-touch and human-centric approaches.

Should the state step in to enforce maintenance orders if a father refuses to pay up after divorce?

Should swift action be taken to remove family abusers once there is violence?

And should the authorities step in when noisy, inconsiderate neighbours persist in being a nuisance?

These are sticky and longstanding problems that have resisted solutions, plaguing many Singapore families who have suffered in silence, sometimes for years.

But relief is in sight. A reformist wind is blowing across the public sector, as political leaders and civil servants roll up their sleeves to work across agencies, and with community groups and volunteers, to test out fresh answers.

News of three recent initiatives aimed at improving domestic life this week suggests gumption in tackling these challenges through high-touch and human-centric approaches.

Enforcing maintenance orders in a divorce

Parliament this week introduced a law establishing a new maintenance enforcement regime in divorce cases. A new unit of maintenance enforcement officers will be set up, to be vested with powers to deal decisively with recalcitrant defaulters, and trained to discern, assess and investigate reasons behind non-payments, including getting information from banks. They can also help genuine cases with financial assistance and other support.

This is a creative and firm way to solve a longstanding problem of non-compliance where divorced men refuse to pay their ex-wives maintenance, despite court rulings. For too long, many women have reported non-payments, to no avail.

From 2017 to 2019, about 2,700 applications to enforce maintenance orders were made each year. About 20 per cent were repeat orders made in the same year, with some women having to make three or four applications a year to enforce the same order.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam called the new process a “game changer”. Indeed, it will be, sparing many working mothers from having to expend time and resources to chase down what was legally owed to them for the upkeep of their children.

But the new process also recognises the variety of reasons why someone might default on payments, and enforcement officers can take a more supportive approach in cases of financial difficulty.

Resolving neighbourly noise disputes

A mechanism devised for dealing with neighbourly noise disputes has a similar approach of mixing firmness and empathy.

Anyone who has lived in a Housing Board flat understands both the ubiquity of the noise problem and its intractability. HDB flats are densely packed, with noise travelling out of windows and doors, across walls and floors. Tracking the source of the noise keeping you up at 2am, and coping with the incessant knock knock knock that goes on for hours during a weekday, will raise your blood pressure.

Even after you identify the noise-maker, denial, deflection and resistance can follow. The police can visit to advise the noise-maker to tone down. You can complain to the HDB. You can take your neighbour to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal for arbitration, or even file a magistrate’s complaint in civil court. But the noise-maker may ignore all orders to desist. Some families sell their flat and move away, leaving the unsuspecting new owner with an old problem. 

Noise has become a rising issue among HDB residents. In 2022, HDB received about 27,600 complaints – or 2,300 per month – on noise from residents’ activities. This was more than five times the 4,800 cases received in 2019.

Reports of nuisance noise have been reported for decades, with various efforts made over the years. The latest changes go further, in setting up a dedicated unit to investigate nuisance noise and work with the police, HDB and other agencies, as well as community groups and residents, to resolve protracted cases.

The law will also compel neighbours to attend mediation to settle such complex disputes. Such mediation agreements, which are usually voluntary, can be registered with the tribunal so they have the force of a court order mandating compliance.

To be sure, the approach of subjecting the most egregious cases to stronger enforcement does not rule out resolution at the community level, among neighbours themselves, or with community volunteers.

There are also public education plans by the Municipal Services Office to set up an “experiential space” in the second half of 2023 to showcase what socially acceptable noise levels look like. This recognises that people may not always be aware of the noise they emit, and raising self-awareness can be a first step to changing behaviours. 

Tackling family violence

A third enhancement to resolving issues with a mix of firmness and fairness was tabled in Parliament this week to protect vulnerable family members from domestic violence.

The Women’s Charter (Family Violence and Other Matters) (Amendment) Bill empowers officials to issue emergency orders to stop domestic violence perpetrators from committing violence for high-risk cases. Such an order stops the perpetrators in their tracks from carrying out further violent acts, as they can be arrested for breaching it. These orders are for 14 days, giving the victim time to seek a personal protection order (PPO) or expedited order.

This latest amendment further strengthens the regime protecting people from family violence. In addition to PPOs, the court can also issue stay-away or no-contact orders against a perpetrator.

For victims reluctant to report their assailants, even if they are at risk of harm, the Bill allows the director-general of social welfare to appoint protectors to act on their behalf. These protectors can apply for PPOs on the victim’s behalf, order monitoring of high-risk perpetrators, and even seek a court order for the victim to be removed from a home if the victim’s safety is seriously threatened.

With this measure, a strong signal is being sent that domestic violence is not a family matter others should steer clear of. Instead, the state is demonstrating that it will step in to protect the vulnerable from an aggressor, no matter what their familial relationship is, and even if the victim is unwilling to act. This is paternalism for a good cause – for the safety of individuals and family.

A multi-pronged approach to complex issues

The above three initiatives are significant for going beyond what has been done in past decades, to resolve issues that are longstanding and difficult to tackle because they are so bound up with human emotions, family relationships and community expectations.

It is easy to adopt a blunt approach to these issues, such as raising jail sentences and penalties, or even introducing mandatory caning for family assault cases. This might appear bold, but would change little in substance, and in fact, might encourage evasion as victims may not want their abusers caned.

It is much harder to have a justice and social justice regime that deters acts of family violence, gets help for victims, and still supports families and keeps children safe while offering help to perpetrators. In all the three cases above, of family violence, noise disputes and maintenance order enforcement, there is an emphasis on rehabilitation, so that perpetrators get help through counselling, and help with parenting and caregiving, and psychiatric support if their mental health condition was considered a factor in their violence. 

Conversely, it would be equally tempting to tinker at the margins in order not to rock the boat, tweaking a regulation here and there on noise or collection of maintenance, or to focus on education campaigns on neighbourliness. Such measures might suggest something is being done but would not substantially improve the lives of those who suffer from having to chase for maintenance, or who chafe at noisy neighbours. 

Perhaps what has informed the flourishing of these nuanced, multi-pronged approaches is the spirit of public consultation and collaborative partnership that enhanced understanding of the complex range of cases and enriched the subsequent thinking undergirding these public policy moves.

The Government sought feedback from members of the public, leading social-sector professionals, healthcare workers, lawyers, protection specialist centres, crisis shelters and family service centres before updating the regime on management of family violence. I am sure a similarly impressive range of stakeholders were consulted before the moves on maintenance orders and noise nuisance were made.

The changes can be seen as policy co-creations that arose after extensive and iterative discussions with stakeholders, whose views and suggestions would have fed into the new policy.

All three approaches acknowledge the reality that good outcomes are not only dependent on good policing or enforcement, but also require the active participation and buy-in of those responsible for the harm in the first place – the noise-maker, the defaulting divorced father and the violent abuser must all stop their harmful behaviours and seek help to do better, for victims to lead peaceful, stable lives.

This involves going beyond the rule of law, to the state playing a role in both actively encouraging good family behaviour and firmly enforcing against bad behaviours.

What cheered me most was how involved newer frontbenchers are in these efforts to co-create solutions with the community.

On noise nuisance, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong and Senior Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann have fronted much of the public debate, while Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law and Health Rahayu Mahzam and Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling spoke about amendments to the Family Justice Reform Bill, especially on the set of changes to reduce acrimony in divorce.

I, for one, also welcome the state stepping in to help resolve such family and community disputes, when ties fray to such an extent that safety is threatened and the weaker party is powerless to defend itself.

At a time when big-picture concerns dominate the global agenda – geopolitical tensions, hyper-inflation, the risk of mass job losses from artificial intelligence gains – it is reassuring to see the wheels of the state grind on, in a way that works with community partners, to empower officers with legal means to take firm action to protect victims, while offering lifelines to help the troubled perpetrator of the wrong.

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


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