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Bill to improve enforcement of family maintenance payments tabled in Parliament

Under the proposed Bill, maintenance enforcement officers can obtain personal financial information directly from government agencies and banks, and provide this to the court.

Bill to improve enforcement of family maintenance payments tabled in Parliament

A file photo of the Family Justice Courts in Singapore. (Photo: iStock)

SINGAPORE: A Bill to improve enforcement of maintenance payments – which can be ordered for wives, children, incapacitated husbands and parents – was tabled in Parliament on Thursday (Apr 20).

The Family Justice Reform Bill introduces several amendments to make family proceedings simpler and more efficient, and facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes, the Ministry of Law (MINLAW) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said in a joint press release.

If passed, the omnibus Bill will amend legislation including the Family Justice Act, the Women's Charter and the Guardianship of Infants Act to strengthen elements of "therapeutic justice" in the family justice system.

This will help families in distress to "heal and move on with their lives", and increase access to justice, especially for people who cannot afford legal representation, said MINLAW and MSF.


The proposed Bill will establish a new Maintenance Enforcement Process, which kicks in when applicants apply to enforce a maintenance order in the event of non-payment.

This will apply to maintenance orders under the Women's Charter, Guardianship of Infants Act, Administration of Muslim Law Act, Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act and Maintenance of Parents Act.

Breaches of maintenance orders continue to be "of concern", said MINLAW and MSF. There was on average about 2,700 applications for enforcement each year from 2017 to 2019, according to data from the Family Justice Courts. This dropped by about 35 per cent from 2020 to 2022.

Currently, information on parties' assets and means is not readily available or disclosed in the enforcement process.

"Without such information, it is difficult to distinguish between respondents who cannot pay maintenance and those who refuse to pay," said MINLAW and MSF.

If a respondent is genuinely unable to pay, the applicant's repeated enforcement attempts would be futile, they added.

The current enforcement process can also be time-consuming and resource-intensive for parties, especially those without the means to engage a lawyer.

Under the new process, "those who refuse to pay maintenance will be dealt with more decisively, while those who cannot pay will be channelled to appropriate assistance, and more sustainable maintenance arrangements can be considered", said the ministries.

This conciliation process will be carried out by a new unit of Maintenance Enforcement Officers (MEOs) located within the law ministry. Compared to the current mediation process, MEOs will more actively seek information and recommend practical solutions to parties.

They will be empowered to obtain information about parties' assets and means directly from stipulated entities, and provide this to the court, said the ministries.

These entities include government agencies – the Central Provident Fund Board, Housing and Development Board, Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS), Singapore Land Authority and Land Transport Authority – as well as banks and The Central Depository.

Tax information from IRAS and information from the banks may only be obtained with a court order.

Needy parties can be referred for financial assistance and other forms of support more quickly. The changes are also meant to reduce the amount of time applicants spend in enforcement proceedings, and the number of trips they have to make to court.

With a more accurate picture of the financial abilities of the respondents, MEOs will be able to put forward a proposal to parties to seek their agreement on the maintenance payments, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling.

"We hope that this will be a more sustainable outcome for the parties," she told reporters.


To deter respondents who continue to refuse to pay, the Bill also provides that the court must make a Show-Payment Order if it is satisfied that a maintenance order has been breached.

A Show-Payment Order requires a respondent to prove that payment has been made by the specified dates. It also specifies a term of imprisonment the respondent may have to serve if he or she fails to show proof of payment.

The period of the Show-Payment Order will typically be six months from the date of the hearing. If a respondent breaches the order within that period, he or she may be sentenced to jail.

No imprisonment order will be made if there are special circumstances making it inappropriate, such as the respondent's state of health or advanced age, said MINLAW and MSF.

The Bill also introduces a "rebuttable presumption" to address the issue of respondents dissipating assets, such as by spending money or moving it to another account.

The ministries said that parties claiming maintenance sometimes need to seek an injunction or clawback order when it is suspected that the respondent is dissipating assets.

"However, it can be difficult to find evidence of such intention to dissipate assets," said the ministries. With the rebuttable presumption, then "if certain conditions are satisfied, the respondent will be presumed to have intended to dissipate assets to frustrate a maintenance claim".

The applicant must show that this happened less than three years before he or she applied for a clawback order, or that there is an impending move that would frustrate enforcement of the maintenance order. Evidence found by the MEO can be used.

The onus is then on the respondent to show that there was no intention to dissipate assets.

For respondents with genuine difficulties paying maintenance, the court can - in the course of enforcement proceedings - also vary the maintenance order without parties having to make a formal application to do so, in certain circumstances.

These changes will simplify and make the process less legalistic for self-represented parties, said the ministries.

Further updates will be provided as time will be needed to operationalise the Maintenance Enforcement Process, they added.


The Bill will also empower the court to disallow the filing of any further applications that would impede resolution of the case or have an adverse effect on a child's welfare, without its permission first, said the ministries.

This follows a recommendation that the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System made in 2019, for unmeritorious legal applications to be weeded out at an early stage.

The amendments are also meant to enhance the judge-led approach in family proceedings, which was introduced in 2014.

One way is by providing clarity in the legislation that judges can make orders of a substantive nature on their own accord. For example, while a case is ongoing, the court may make interim orders to ensure that a child is returned to the care parent until the matter is resolved.

The Bill will also clarify that where the wishes of the child are to be considered by the court, the Family Justice Rules can set out the mode by which the child's wishes may be determined.

"This may include judges conducting interviews with the child," said MINLAW and MSF.

The Bill will also make it clear that judges can restrict cross-examination in some circumstances, such as when the questioning of a vulnerable witness could be unduly intimidating or oppressive.

The Family Justice Reform Bill follows earlier changes to the family justice process, including last January's introduction of the option for couples to divorce by mutual agreement, and the simplified track for uncontested divorce in 2015.

Listen: Realities of divorce: Why some couples want to attribute blame while others want to move on

Source: CNA/dv(rj)


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