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Aware renews call for Govt to shorten minimum 3 years of marriage before divorce proceedings can begin

SINGAPORE — The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has urged the Government to reconsider its decision to retain the minimum three years of marriage before divorce proceedings can begin. The group renewed its call to lower the period to one or, at most, two years to allow Singaporeans to lead more satisfying family lives.

The Aware group argues that the three-year minimum period of marriage before divorce proceedings can begin should be shortened to one year, or at most, two years.

The Aware group argues that the three-year minimum period of marriage before divorce proceedings can begin should be shortened to one year, or at most, two years.

  • Gender equality group Aware submitted recommendations to the Government 
  • This was in response to a consultation paper on support for children of divorcing couples
  • Aware said shortening the time for couples to stay married before divorce would allow people to form another family unit sooner 
  • The group strongly approved of the Government’s recent proposal to have a new amicable divorce option

 

SINGAPORE — The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has urged the Government to reconsider its decision to retain the minimum three years of marriage before divorce proceedings can begin. The group renewed its call to lower the period to one or, at most, two years to allow Singaporeans to lead more satisfying family lives.

This was among six recommendations the gender equality group set out in a submission to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), in response to the ministry’s consultation paper on reducing acrimony and better supporting divorcees and their children.

Among its other recommendations, Aware called for the Singapore courts to grant power to a separate body to enforce maintenance orders and handle other related matters.

It suggested a body such as Maintenance Support Central run by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations that provides support and assistance for clients who have difficulty in receiving spousal or child maintenance.

Aware also suggested that maintenance claims be made gender-neutral and strictly based on needs so that male spouses have equal rights to make claims.

In a media release on Thursday (June 3), Aware said that it strongly approved of the Government’s proposal to introduce a new amicable divorce option, which would allow couples who mutually agree to divorce to file as joint applicants and do away with the need to state faults to prove that the marriage has “irretrievably broken down”.

The current divorce process requires parties to state one of five “fault-based facts”, which include adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion, as grounds for divorce.

All divorces also require a plaintiff – or the initiator who files – and a defendant.

Drawing upon the experiences of clients at its Women’s Care Centre and Sexual Assault Care Centre as well as consultation with family lawyers, Aware outlined six key recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Introduction of the “amicable divorce option” in place of the current fault-based approach, which requires a “plaintiff” and a “defendant”.

Aware said that this will be in line with the family justice system’s move from an adversarial approach towards a therapeutic approach, where parties involved adopt a “problem-solving mindset that facilitates healing”.

This move towards no-fault divorce would also be consistent with international trends, it noted.

Aware cited as examples countries such as Finland, Spain and Sweden, which do not require parties to provide a ground for divorce, and certain states in the United States such as California and Colorado, where an application filed by one of the spouses is seen effectively as conclusive evidence of the breakdown of marriage.

Recommendation 2: Reduction of the current three-year time bar before divorce proceedings can begin to either one or, at most, two years.

Aware noted that in 2003, Justice Debbie Ong, then a legal academic, now presiding judge of the Family Justice Courts, similarly recommended that the time restriction on divorce be shortened to one year in the best interests of the affected parties.

This is in line with the approach adopted in other countries such as the United Kingdom, where the three-year time bar had previously been the prevailing legal position.

Renewing calls for a similar move, Aware’s executive director Corinna Lim recognised the Government’s desire to protect the institution of marriage and not make divorce easy.

“We know women and men are marrying later in life and thus getting divorced later, too. Decreasing the time bar to a year, as we recommend, would give these individuals a chance to form another family unit sooner rather than later,” she said.

Based on data released by the Department of Statistics last year, the median age for men getting divorced in 2019 is 43.4 and for women, it is 39.3 years.

Recommendation 3: Set clear principles for maintenance awards, with a focus on setting out a formula for the calculation of maintenance claims to promote consistency and transparency.

This is similar to the jurisdiction in New York in the US, for example, where worksheets to calculate guideline amounts for maintenance, as well as calculator tools, are made available to parties to give them a better sense of what they can expect to receive, Aware said.

However, judges still have the discretion to amend the amounts depending on the circumstances of the case.

A similar approach could be adopted in Singapore to help parties manage their expectations around maintenance claims, Aware said. It would also speed up the process since proceedings would not need to be extended to contest the maintenance awards.

Recommendation 4: Maintenance claims should be made gender-neutral and strictly based on need, so that male spouses have equal rights to claim maintenance.

This can be reflected by the use of the general term “spouse” and the removal of the need for the husband to be “incapacitated” so that both husband and wife can make a claim for maintenance.

Right now, husbands or ex-husbands can apply for maintenance only if they are incapacitated by a physical or mental disability, before or during the marriage, unable to earn a living because of the disability, and unable to support themselves.

Recommendation 5: Grant powers to a separate body, such as the Maintenance Support Central, to facilitate the enforcement of maintenance orders and handle other related matters.

This would include allowing the body to undertake stronger and more pro-active enforcement measures to secure maintenance payments.

Aware noted that while efforts have been made to strengthen Singapore’s maintenance regime, many women still face the problem of ex-partners persistently dodging payment of spousal or child support.

Nearly three in four family lawyers it surveyed reported that their clients have dealt with continued non-compliance by their former partners even after court orders were enforced.

“This has ramifications not only for the relationship between ex-partners, but also the well-being of their children,” Aware said.

Recommendation 6: Strengthen assistance and protections for migrant spouses of citizens seeking divorce, particularly those with citizen children and those experiencing family violence.

Aware noted that migrant spouses struggle to navigate the legal system here, obtain affordable legal aid and retain their right to reside in Singapore during divorce proceedings, which cause much stress and affects their ability to obtain custody of their children.

Hence, measures to “equalise the playing field” for divorcing migrant spouses could include providing low-cost or free legal aid and helplines, and online information portal and information sessions, among others, the group said.

Ms Lim said that divorce takes a huge toll psychologically, practically and financially on the parties involved and it is not an outcome that “anybody wishes for or enters enthusiastically if they can help it”.

“Yet for many adults and children, divorce represents the light at the end of a dark, stifling tunnel: A relief from their troubles and a chance to start anew.

“Our respect for the institution of marriage must go hand in hand with, and indeed be informed by the recognition that those unsuited as spouses should have the means to rectify their situations as painlessly as possible.”

MSF said that it will publish a summary of the key feedback received after the consultation process wraps up on Thursday. All feedback will be anonymised.

Related topics

Aware marriage Divorce MSF family children

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