Justice Debbie Ong, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts;
Mr Chia Wee Kiat, Deputy Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts;
Ms Lisa Sam, Vice President of the Law Society of Singapore
Ms Kee Lay Lian and Ms Wong Kai Yun, Co-Chairs of the Family Law Practice Committee;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. It is my pleasure to address the Family Conference today. I hope the conference will bring together new insights and perspectives from our varied stakeholders, as we journey alongside our families.
2. The conference theme “Essentials for the Journey into New Frontiers” is a timely focus. We have had a busy legislative year. The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) worked together with the Family Justice Courts (FJC) and the Law Society of Singapore to introduce various changes to legislation, programmes, and systems in the past year. These changes help us to better support the entire range of family archetypes in Singapore who may require access to family justice.
II. Trends on Divorce and Ageing
3. Before I detail the changes, I would like to set the context by highlighting two emerging trends:
a. First, we are seeing rising divorce rates. The proportion of dissolved marriages has increased for recent marriages compared to older marriages. Among the 2008 marriage cohort for example, 15.0% had dissolved before the 10th anniversary, compared to 8.9% of the 1988 marriage cohort.
b. Second, our population is ageing rapidly. By 2030, 1 in 4 Singapore citizens will be a senior. More individuals will be prone to challenges associated with ageing, such as loss of mental capacity.
4. These trends will impact the family, and the family justice ecosystem will continue to play a critical role.
a. Our first priority is always to save marriages. Where divorce is inevitable, we must foster therapeutic justice to bring about healing and to help the family to move on. As around half of all divorces involve children younger than 21 years, we strive to reduce acrimony and ensure child-centricity in proceedings.
b. With a rapidly ageing society, we must also continue our support to families caring for loved ones who suffer from a loss of mental capacity. This not only involves the legal process of Deputyship, but also having adequate social support and providing access to counselling services. Importantly, we should also encourage individuals, especially the elderly, to make a Lasting Power of Attorney, appointing someone they trust to make decisions on their behalf in the event that they lose mental capacity.
5. Every part of the family justice community plays a vital role in supporting families navigate the challenges in the two areas I have mentioned. It is crucial for family proceedings to not only be efficient and effective, but to facilitate healing and restoration. We seek your support, everyone in the ecosystem – lawyers, psychologists, social workers – to work together to provide holistic support for the family.
6. Let me now elaborate on the key changes that have been introduced.
III. Changes to Legislation, Programmes and Systems
7. In the past year, MSF has passed various legislative amendments for, among others, the Women’s Charter, Mental Capacity Act, and the Adoption of Children Act.
Women’s Charter Amendments
8. In January, we made amendments to the Women’s Charter. This included four substantive changes related to the divorce process, which aim to strengthen the application of therapeutic justice principles in support of those affected by divorce. This “lens of care” seeks to help families and family relationships heal, by minimising acrimony, emphasising co-parenting and providing support to both parents and children.
9. As we all know, the first amendment introduces Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, or DMA in short, as a sixth fact in addition to the existing five facts under the current divorce regime. DMA aims to reduce acrimony in the divorce.
10. The intent behind DMA is clear, for parties to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage. Parties may cite reasons like deep-seated differences in values. Additionally, they may submit their efforts to reconcile, and demonstrate to the court that reconciliation is not reasonably possible. Parties must also provide their considerations given to the arrangements to be made for their children and financial affairs. Such safeguards help ensure that parties sufficiently reflect on their decision to divorce and their post-divorce arrangements, to reduce tensions and ensure positive outcomes, as far as possible, post-divorce.
11. We must also remember the importance of applying the principles of Therapeutic Justice. Although parties are no longer married, they are part of a family unit, and will always be a family to their children. The focus should be on promoting healing and transitioning into the next phase with dignity.
12. Apart from DMA, three amendments were also made to provide additional support to those undergoing divorce.
13. First, the Mandatory Parenting Programme, will be extended to all divorcing parents with minor children. Beyond legislative amendments, MSF has enhanced the programme by providing personalised consultations for the parents and enriching the co-parenting syllabus. Since September, the programme has been revised to offer 2 new components;(i) e-learning, and (ii) a consultation with a counsellor. The e-learning course aims to help parents understand their marital situation, co-parenting relationship, and children’s needs. After the e-learning course, parents will have a consultation session with a counsellor who can better assess their needs and provide personalised support.
14. Second, to safeguard the well-being of children whose parents are undergoing divorce, the court may advise parents to secure their child’s attendance at the Programme for Children, which encompasses a range of possible support for children, such as group programmes, counselling or psychological services.
15. Third, the Court may order a range of new measures for the enforcement of child access orders. For example, additional access may be granted to the access parent to make up for the access denied. There may also be orders for counselling, mediation, or family support programmes for both the parents and the child.
16. We hope these changes together will encourage more parents to make informed decisions that prioritise the well-being of their children, so they can co-parent more effectively. We all know that it will not be smooth sailing at the beginning as we transition to these new requirements and processes, but I am confident that with all of us applying our minds and energies to it, and keeping the first principles crystal clear in our hearts, we can together have a family justice system that is more even, fair and kinder to our families, and that the family justice community is well-equipped to adapt to the changes.
17. MSF is working with the FJC to operationalise these amendments effectively, to ensure these interventions best suit families’ needs and enhance the healing process. We hope to implement some of these amendments by the end of this year, while other amendments such as DMA would come into effect in 2023, to allow time for courts, lawyers, social service agencies and other parties to be ready.
18. Looking ahead, MSF is working together with FJC and the Ministry of Law to enhance the maintenance enforcement regime. We are studying how to provide more efficient and effective means to enforce maintenance orders and minimise repeat enforcement. We will elaborate more on these proposals when the amendments are introduced in Parliament.
Family violence-related amendments
19. MSF is also working towards making family violence-related amendments to the Women’s Charter. This follows the recommendations from the Taskforce on Family Violence which I co-chaired, to improve support and rehabilitation for family violence survivors and perpetrators. Some of the proposed amendments are:
a. First, strengthening protection of family violence survivors. We will introduce an emergency social service response comprising MSF social service professionals to attend to family violence cases with imminent harm. We will also enable the Director-General of Social Welfare and appointed Protectors to apply for personal protection orders, or PPOs, on behalf of certain persons who experience family violence.
b. Second, enhancing the rehabilitation and accountability for perpetrators. This includes introducing mandatory treatment orders for perpetrators with mental health conditions. We also intend to raise penalties for breaches of PPOs and other orders, and to make breaches of rehabilitative orders an offence.
FAM@FSCs and Family Assist
20. Beyond legislative amendments, MSF has introduced complementary measures to ensure the smooth delivery of our support programmes.
21. We launched the Strengthening Families Programme@Family Service Centres, or FAM@FSCs last October, to consolidate existing marriage and divorce support programmes and services, as well as to introduce new family counselling services for those facing family relationship issues.
22. As at today, we have supported over 5,000 individuals and families. Seven FAM@FSCs have begun operations and three more will be set up by end 2022. When all the 10 FAM@FSCs are set up, families with early risks will be supported through a regional, integrated and multi-disciplinary approach.
23. In addition, to enable access to resources and services digitally, MSF launched the Family Assist portal that provides information and support for those who are open to strengthening their marriage, as well as those who have decided to proceed with divorce, to make informed decisions.
Mental Capacity Act Amendments
24. Let me now move on to the amendments made to the Mental Capacity Act in July 2021, which intend to enable individuals to make and register a Lasting Power of Attorney, or LPA, with greater ease and convenience. The amendments also enhance safeguards to better protect donors.
25. The amendments establish the new Office of the Public Guardian Online system, or OPGO. With this new system, the processing time to register an LPA will be reduced from an average of three weeks under the current process of hardcopy submissions, to an average of eight working days. Donors and Certificate Issuers will also be able to sign the LPA digitally. MSF will be sharing more details about the OPGO system later this month.
Adoption of Children Act Amendments
26. Finally, let me touch on the Adoption of Children Act, or ACA, which MSF repealed and re-enacted in Parliament in May this year.
27. Our starting point is that every child deserves to be in a loving family and caring community. Hence, the new Act seeks to find a good home for every child identified for adoption, balancing the interests of the birth parents and the child, and to put in place a sound regulatory system for the adoption process. I will share briefly on how the new Act achieves these objectives.
28. First, on a good home for every child. The new Act puts in place clearer and tighter eligibility criteria for adoption. Given the small number of children identified for adoption, and the need to accurately assess prospective adopters for suitability as adoptive parents, MSF will prioritise applicants with a stronger nexus with Singapore.
29. For the child’s welfare, applicants also cannot adopt children if they were convicted of serious crimes unless there are special circumstances. In making its decision on whether to grant an adoption order, the Court is to give due consideration as to whether MSF as the Guardian-in-Adoption supports the application, and be satisfied that the risk of harm to the child will be low.
30. Furthermore, as part of the tightened criteria, all prospective adopters must attend (a) a pre-adoption briefing to help them understand the adoption process and the child’s needs, (b) a Disclosure Briefing to equip them with the knowledge and skills to disclose a child’s adoptive status to him or her appropriately, and (c) undergo an Adoption Suitability Assessment. Only those with a favourable assessment can proceed to make an adoption application.
31. Second, on balancing the interest of the birth parents and child in the adoption process. MSF recognises the sanctity of parents’ rights over their child, and would ordinarily seek their consent on their adoption. However, we have encountered cases where the birth parents are missing, or refuse to consent to the adoption even though it would be in child’s welfare to be adopted. To avoid protracted legal contestations, the ACA provides a wider range of circumstances where the dispensation of parental consent to the child’s adoption would be in the child’s welfare. This will enable MSF to better facilitate adoptions, especially for children in state care, so that they can find loving families who can offer them stability and a better chance in life.
32. Lastly, the ACA introduces offences to ensure the integrity of adoption practices and processes in Singapore, such as regulating the categories of payments which can be made in adoption to prevent improper financial gains.
33. MSF will be working with FJC and our adoption agencies to effect these changes in 2023.
IV. Conclusion and Year of Celebrating SG Families
34. I have outlined several legislative, programme and system changes, and would like to thank FJC and the Law Society for working together with us on these efforts. You have been instrumental in this process, and MSF will continue to work closely with you as well as the broader family justice community to smoothly bring these changes into operation.
35. These changes will have a profound impact on the family justice ecosystem for decades to come. And it is fitting that we are layering a stronger legislative foundation for supporting and strengthening our families in 2022, which has been dedicated as the Year of Celebrating SG Families.
36. As part of the national family ecosystem, the family justice community plays a critical role in our collective efforts to strengthen family relationships and foster therapeutic justice. Together, I am sure we can ensure the best possible outcomes for parents and their children.
37. Thank you and I wish you a fruitful and fulfilling Family Conference.