Parents who abused children may find it harder to claim maintenance later, under proposed changes to law
SINGAPORE — To prevent the Maintenance of Parents Act from being unfairly used by abusive parents against their children, a workgroup has proposed four changes to the law, which includes requiring these parents to seek permission from a tribunal before they approach their children for financial help.
- A public consultation will be held between Nov 14 and Dec 9 on four proposed amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act
- It was last amended in 2010
- An earlier public consultation found that 70 per cent of respondents felt it is a child's responsibility to care for their parents
- The same survey also found a unanimous consensus on the need to protect people who suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment by a parent during childhood
SINGAPORE — To prevent the Maintenance of Parents Act from being unfairly used by abusive parents against their children, a workgroup has proposed four changes to the law, which include requiring these parents to seek permission from a tribunal before they approach their children for financial help.
It will also allow for frivolous or vexatious applications to be dismissed such that the children need not personally respond, to prevent them from having to relive any traumas they may have faced at the hands of their parents.
Members of the public will be able to give feedback on the amendments to the law from Monday (Nov 14) onwards, which could help fine-tune the proposal before it is tabled in Parliament as a Private Members’ Bill. The workgroup aims to table it by the first quarter of next year.
A Private Member’s Bill allows any Member of Parliament (MP) to initiate legislation, though it is fairly rare in Singapore since most are government Bills introduced by ministers.
The amendments were announced to the media by members of the workgroup during a briefing on Nov 3, ahead of the launch of the public consultation exercise, which will end on Dec 9.
The workgroup, led by MP Seah Kian Peng and eight other MPs, was set up in January this year to review the law, which includes looking at how to prevent its wrongful use by parents who have a history of abusing their child.
Also present at the media briefing were MPs Tin Pei Ling and Murali Pillai.
Last amended in 2010, the law provides for elders who are unable to financially maintain themselves adequately, so that they may have a legal channel to seek maintenance from their children.
Among the changes made in 2010 was to make it compulsory for parents to seek conciliation with their children at the Office of the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents before filing for a maintenance order at the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents.
The commissioner is appointed under the Maintenance of Parents Act and helps parents secure monetary contributions from their children through conciliation.
The workgroup said on Nov 3 that the law takes a conciliation-first approach — that is, an informal means for parents and their children to resolve a dispute over the provision of maintenance through non-legal means. Legal action is only taken as a last resort.
WHAT THE FOUR AMENDMENTS ARE
The first amendment requires parents with records of abuse, neglect or abandonment against their child to first seek permission from the tribunal before they proceed with conciliation at the office of the commissioner.
In essence, it will empower both the commissioner and the tribunal in various ways.
For instance, they will be able to conduct a search for records of child abuse in official databases.
The tribunal will also be able to require the parent to appear before it for a hearing.
There, the parent must then prove that he or she had not abandoned, abused or neglected the child from whom the maintenance claim is made.
Or else, if the parent had committed these acts, they must argue for why they should receive a maintenance claim.
If the parent is unable to convince the tribunal, they will not be able to file a claim against their child.
However, if there is no clear evidence of abuse against the child in the records, the tribunal’s president or deputy president will be empowered to grant leave to the parent to proceed with conciliation.
Ms Tin clarified that an abused child can still support their parent, if they can reconcile and reach an understanding.
She also said that in cases where there are no official records of abuse, the child will have to go through the current process of maintenance.
That means, the onus of proof is on the child to prove instances of abuse, neglect or abandonment before the application can be dismissed.
Under a second amendment, the tribunal will be empowered to dismiss frivolous or vexatious applications without requiring the children to respond.
Mr Murali defined frivolous applications as those that have no reasonable chance of success, while those that are vexatious are made for "collateral purposes" such as by harassing the child.
“What we want to do (with this amendment) is to… protect the respondents who would have to face allegations, in the context of a frivolous application, and revisit what had happened in the past, so that the tribunal can make an appropriate decision,” he said.
At present, the tribunal’s president and deputy president have powers to dismiss such fresh claims, but they require the children to be called upon to respond to such applications.
However, in instances where it involves a variation application — that is, to change certain terms of an existing application — a tribunal of three members needs to be formed.
With the amendment, it will allow both the president and deputy president to similarly dismiss such variation applications to make the process efficient.
The third amendment will allow the commissioner to locate the children of destitute parents for mandatory conciliation, without the need for the parent to put in a formal application.
The workgroup said that this will only apply to children of persons being assessed for admission to, or already residing in, a welfare home under the Destitute Persons Act.
The reason for this amendment, the workgroup said, is that it addresses cases where a destitute parent refuses to contact their child — who is financially able to support them — for reasons such as being afraid of straining relationships with them or being estranged from them.
Ms Tin said: “We still recognise that there's a need to send a clear signal that if a parent has exercised (responsible) parenting… then children, if they have the means, ought to reciprocate and offer some care and support.”
For the final amendment, it will give the tribunal the power to make non-monetary orders — such as gambling addiction counselling orders — on one or more parties, if it is in the interest of the parent.
In the event that the parent does not respond to the non-monetary order, the workgroup said that the child is not obliged to pay maintenance.
WHAT WORKGROUP FOUND
Aside from outlining the amendments, the workgroup touched on the results of a public consultation that it held between January and February this year. It involved more than 1,000 respondents.
Mr Seah said: “What we found out through our focus groups and online surveys (is)… all of us (feel) that families are the first line of defence and the first people we turn to whenever there is a need.”
The workgroup found that four in five of the respondents agreed that children should reciprocate and care for their parents who raised them, with 70 per cent stating that it is the child’s obligation to care for their parents.
That said, it also found that there was an almost unanimous consensus that there was a need to protect people who had been abused, neglected or abandoned by the parent during childhood.
Three out of four of those polled agreed that in such cases, parents should be prevented from filing maintenance claims.
When asked by TODAY if there were statistics to be shared to illustrate the number of instances in which the law has been unfairly used against children, the workgroup said that it has encountered such cases, but Mr Murali added that it would be difficult to give a figure.
“It’s difficult to get statistics because you’re talking about the child not wanting to relive the experience (of abuse by their parent). Therefore, they take the path of least resistance and cave in (to the parent’s demands). So we’ll never know the true picture,” he said.
If the changes are passed in Parliament, they will tighten protocols to protect children from having the law misused against them.
It will also further empower the commissioner and the tribunal to safeguard vulnerable elders.
WHAT A SENIOR LAWYER SAYS
Commenting on the proposed amendments, Senior Counsel Gregory Vijayendran, the tribunal’s president, described them as “timely and significant”, allowing the tribunal to respond to cases more efficiently.
Of note are the proposals for non-monetary orders and the power given to the tribunal’s president and deputy president to dismiss frivolous or vexatious applications, he added.
The non-monetary orders would give the tribunal flexibility in dealing with complex cases, while the added power will be appropriate in cases involving family violence or child abuse.
“You can imagine that in some of these cases, for instance, where there's child abuse, there is a risk of re-traumatisation if you have parties interfacing and interacting with each other. So this (set of amendments) allows for an appropriate order to be made right at the onset,” Mr Gregory said.
At the same time, there is a balance because an applicant that had his or her case dismissed can still have a right of appeal. In such an instance, neither the president nor the deputy president who made the dismissal order will be sitting in on the appeal, Mr Gregory added.
Members of the public may give their views and comments on the proposed amendments through Reach, the Government's feedback unit, at https://go.gov.sg/feedbackmpa by Dec 9, 11.59pm.
A summary of the key feedback received and the workgroup’s response will also be published on Reach’s portal some time after the public consultation ends.