1 The amendments to the Women’s Charter (WC) were passed in Parliament today. The Amendments will:
a. Enhance the marriage process; and
b. Strengthen focus on care for the family and welfare of the children in divorce proceedings (in accordance with therapeutic justice principles1).
MSF thanks Citizens and Stakeholders for Feedback received
2 In reviewing the Women’s Charter, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) had organised extensive engagements with citizens and stakeholders to seek their feedback and suggestions since 2020, especially on the divorce process, and in particular on the proposed Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage (DMA). More than 150 divorcees took part in a Citizen Panel engagement that was held over four months in 2020, and in various focus group discussions in 2021. MSF also conducted focus group discussions with key stakeholders such as the Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) and FAM@FSC, lawyers, academics and many civil society, community and religious organisations. In addition, MSF gathered further feedback through the year-long, nation-wide Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development in 2021, as well as the Alliance for Action (AfA) to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships led by Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development. We thank the public, stakeholders and our partners for their feedback and suggestions.
Enhancing the marriage process and support to build strong marriages
3 Instead of requiring in-person completion of pre-solemnisation procedures, the WC Amendments will allow couples to conveniently complete all their pre-solemnisation steps online via ROM’s “Our Marriage Journey” (OMJ) IT portal. Video-link solemnisation that was first introduced under the Covid-19 Temporary Measures Act has become a permanent option available under the WC Amendments, to enable couples to marry even under challenging circumstances.
4 Beyond legislation, the OMJ portal which will provide online resources, a questionnaire to help couples reflect on their relationship, recommend and facilitate sign-ups for suitable marriage preparation programmes, and offer online marriage tips to newlyweds in their first year of marriage. Working with the AfA on Strengthening Marriages and Family Relationships, ROM will pilot “JOurney with You” or JOY, for short, where a group of Licensed Solemnisers have volunteered to mentor newlyweds during their first year of marriage. All these measures aim to support newlyweds and lay the foundation for a strong marriage.
When Divorce is inevitable: Therapeutic Justice and Child-centricity
5 When a couple decides that divorce is the best option for them, there will be a need to reduce acrimony and foster an environment which allows healing for them and their family members. Hence, the WC amendments aim to strengthen therapeutic justice elements in the divorce process and enhance support for those undergoing divorce. Critically, if there is a child in the family, the divorcing couple should consider what would be in the best interests of the child.
a) Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage (DMA)
6 Guided by these objectives, one key amendment is the introduction of Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the Irretrievable Breakdown of the Marriage (DMA) as a sixth fact of divorce. Under the DMA, couples who mutually agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably have to submit to the court:
(i) The reasons leading parties to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably broken down;
(ii) The efforts made to reconcile; and
(iii) Considerations given to the arrangements to be made in relation to the parties’ children and financial affairs.
7 A bare agreement without reasons is not enough. Parties must be acting voluntarily, have the requisite knowledge of the terms and intend to enter into the agreement. If the court finds the required submission insufficient or believes there is a possibility of reconciliation, the court may order further mediation, counselling, or family support programmes as appropriate. The court must also reject any agreement if the court considers that reconciliation is reasonably possible. This is a parties-centric test assessed based on the circumstances of each individual case. It allows a couple to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage.
8 DMA thus strikes a balance in upholding the marriage institution as couples must have first attempted to reconcile yet acknowledging that when a marriage has truly broken down, the law should permit the couple to divorce without unnecessary acrimony, allowing for them to accept that they were jointly responsible rather than lay blame against each other, and as importantly, that they have considered matters post-divorce which affect their children’s well-being.
9 All current safeguards of the divorce regime continue to apply namely, a) 3-year minimum marriage period before divorce can be filed; b) minimum 3-month period before divorce is finalised; and c) the existing 5 facts (desertion, adultery, unreasonable behaviour, and separation of 3 years with consent and 4 years without consent) for parties who prefer to rely on them.
b) Extension of the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP)
10 The Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) will be extended to parents with minor children on the simplified divorce track, so as to encourage co-operative co-parenting post-divorce in the interest of their children. The MPP will also be enhanced to include information on where to seek timely support.
c) Programmes for Key Related Persons and Children
11 The Court has also been empowered to advise key related persons (e.g. grandparents) to participate in family support programmes that will benefit the children. The Court may also advise parents to secure their child’s attendance at the Programme for Children at any stage of the proceedings or even after the final judgement has been granted, if deemed beneficial. The Programme for Children is a broad term that covers a range of possible support for children, including an assessment of the needs of the child, as well as specific interventions, such as group programmes, counselling or psychological services. The Court can take non-compliance into consideration in making custody, care and control, and access orders, among other relevant factors in determining the welfare of the child.
d) Enforcement of Child Access Orders
12 A range of measures have also been introduced to enhance enforcement of child access orders which empower the Court to order:
(i) The care and control parent to compensate the access parent for expenses incurred as a result of the breach of the order;
(ii) The care and control parent to provide additional child access to the access parent to make up for the access denied;
(iii) Both parents and the child, or any of them, to attend counselling, mediation, therapeutic or educational programmes, or family support programmes;
(iv) The care and control parent to enter into a performance bond to ensure future compliance with the order; and
(v) As a last resort, imprisonment or fine for the care and control parent.
13 Apart from the WC amendments above, MSF will continue to work closely with the Ministry of Law and the Family Justice Courts with a view to provide a more efficient and effective means to enforce maintenance orders and minimise the need for repeat enforcement. This includes enabling the Court to adopt an inquisitorial approach when hearing enforcement applications, streamlining procedures, and strengthening deterrence against non-payment of maintenance. Beyond legal and procedural reforms, we will also look at cases involving those who “can’t pay” and MSF and FJC will continue to link them to support. We are considering the feasibility of taking these up under other legislation. MSF will also enhance protection against family violence in a separate Bill by end of this year. Together with our partners, we aim to make Singapore a stronger, fairer, and more inclusive society.
Collective Effort to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships
14 Ms Sun Xueling said:
“Our priority is to save marriages where possible; but where divorce is inevitable, therapeutic justice and child-centricity should be fostered and brought to the fore to reduce acrimony, bring about healing, and allow divorcees and their children to move on. Together with the slew of marriage and family support programmes that go beyond legislation, the amendments reflect the Government’s firm belief that strong families are the foundation of a resilient nation.
Our work continues with the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, to identify gaps and co-create solutions, so as to strengthen the eco-system of support for couples and families. Let us continue our collective efforts to realise our vision – of a Singapore that is made for families.”
1 As recommended by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF) when it submitted its report in September 2019.
Annex: Glossary of Translated Terms and Amendments Summary