1 Mr Speaker, I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time".
2 The Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961 and is a key piece of legislation. Over the past six decades, it has institutionalised the rights and responsibilities of men and women in marriage and ensured the welfare and protection of women in Singapore.
3 The Women’s Charter upholds our overarching principles towards marriage and divorce. These are
i. That marriage is the cornerstone of family formation and thus, the significance of the solemnisation and registration of marriages must be emphasised; the institution of marriage must
be protected by ensuring that all marriages contracted here are genuine.
i. Our first priority is to save marriages, but where divorce is inevitable, we must foster therapeutic
justice to bring about healing so that the family can move on. We strive to reduce acrimony and ensure child-centricity in the proceedings, including parental responsibility and co-operative co-parenting post-divorce.
4 However, we recognise
we can do more to strengthen the institution of marriage and safeguard the welfare of children in the extent?? event of divorce. We have engaged citizens and stakeholders extensively on the divorce process, especially on the proposed Divorce by Mutual
Agreement of the Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage. We started since 2020, when we convened a Citizen Panel involving more than 150 divorcees over a 4-month period, many of whom bravely shared their marriage and divorce experiences with us, so we
can understand what they went through and make the necessary changes in our law and policies. We also engaged social work practitioners, Community and Religious Leaders, and law practitioners, academics, and other stakeholders. Furthermore, as part
of the year-long, nation-wide Conversations on Singapore’s Women’s Development last year, as well as through the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships that I lead, our citizens and other stakeholders have given us feedback
on strengthening marriages and supporting families undergoing divorce.
5 Having reviewed this feedback, we propose to
i. Enhance the marriage process and strengthen safeguards to protect
the institution of marriage;
ii. Strengthen therapeutic justice in the divorce process and ensure those affected by divorce are supported; and
iii. Ensure the Women’s Charter remains up-to-date.
6 Let me elaborate.
II. MARRIAGE-RELATED PROPOSALS
7 The first category of proposals aims to
i. Enhance the marriage process to provide convenience to couples looking to start on their marriage journey. These changes are in line with the digital transformation
of Singapore; and
ii. We’re also looking to update the necessary safeguards to ensure that the institution of marriage is not abused.
Enhancing the marriage process
8 Currently, to marry under the Women’s Charter, most steps, from pre-solemnisation to solemnisation, must be completed in-person. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that there are circumstances in which this may be difficult. Certain aspects of the process, such as the verification of documents, can also be digitalised.
9 MSF will therefore introduce the new “Our Marriage Journey” portal this year, which will enable couples to conveniently complete all pre-solemnisation steps online. Changes to the current marriage process include
i. First, the repeal of existing section 17 by clause 10. Under the existing section 17, parties who intend to marry must submit a
statutory declaration of certain matters, for example that the parties are not prevented by law from marrying. A statutory declaration must be made in person before a Commissioner for Oaths. With the repeal of section 17, instead of a statutory declaration,
parties will only make a declaration in the prescribed form online. The contents of the declaration, and consequences of a false declaration, will be similar to that for the statutory declaration required today.
ii. Clause 19 repeals the current Section 31, which requires signed and sealed copies of hard-copy marriage certificates to be issued. The new section 30 will no longer require hard copy certificates, and digital certificates will be issued instead.
iii. Clause 15 also introduces a new Section 24 to empower the Registrar and Licensed Solemnisers to solemnise marriages via video-link in Singapore should couples choose to do so. This was first introduced during Circuit Breaker in May 2020 as a temporary option under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) for Solemnisation and Registration of Marriages) Act 2020. Clause 43 will repeal this Act, and clause 15 will make this a permanent option under the Women’s Charter. Nonetheless, couples may still hold their solemnisations in-person, and indeed, most couples prefer this option as the solemnisation is a significant and momentous occasion, and couples often wish to celebrate with their loved ones in-person.
iv. Lastly, Clause 10 introduces a new Section 15 to allow the Notice of Marriage to be cancelled where the Registrar is satisfied that there is good reason to do so.
10 As a safeguard, where there are concerns such as an individual lacking mental
capacity or marriages of convenience, the couple may not perform the declaration online or the Registrar of Marriages may decide not to permit any couple to solemnise their marriage via video-link. Such couples would have to appear in-person.
11 The marriage process is significant and should continue to reflect the solemnity of the marriage contract. Hence, we will continue to provide couples with a ceremonial marriage certificate for keepsake. The “Our Marriage” portal will also
Provide information and resources on marriage preparation;
ii. Provide an online Marriage Questionnaire tool to help couples prepare for their next step;
iii. Recommend and facilitate sign-ups for suitable Marriage Preparation Programmes; and
iv. Provide push notifications of online marriage tips to couples in their first year of marriage.
recognise the important roles solemnisers play in the marriage journey of couples. Many Licensed Solemnisers develop good relationships with the couples and have a wealth of helpful tips. We are therefore piloting the Journey with You (in
short, referred to as JOY) initiative, which will enable Licensed Solemnisers to mentor newlyweds in the first year of marriage. We launched the one-year pilot in Dec 2021 with 20 selected solemnisers. Through this, we aim to create a Community
of Practice for Licensed Solemnisers to share best practices. Many couples also complete pre-marital counselling courses with their religious organisations. Through the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships,
religious organizations are stepping forward to do more to prepare young couples for marriage and to mentor them.
Updating safeguards to ensure that the institution of marriage is not abused
13 Another set of marriage-related proposals involve updating safeguards to ensure that the institution of marriage is not abused. We want to ensure the Registry of Marriages can continue to perform due diligence in all applications for marriage by satisfying itself that parties have the capacity to marry and are entering into a marriage willingly and in good faith.
14 Currently, non-residents who are not Singaporean Citizens or Permanent Residents, including those with no nexus to Singapore, can marry here, as long as at least one party has been present in Singapore for 15 days preceding the filing of the notice of marriage. Going forward, we will impose stricter requirements for such persons to marry here. We do not want to be a marriage hub for marriages where neither party has any nexus to Singapore, as it could compromise ROM’s ability to carry out its due diligence and inadvertently undermine the significance of marriage. Clause 10 of the Amendment Bill introduces Section 18, of which subsection (1)(c) provides that where any party is not a Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident, the Minister may prescribe the length of stay required by at least one party in Singapore before they can be allowed to marry. We intend to prescribe that at least one party must have been physically present in Singapore for 31 continuous days. This would prevent couples where both parties are on Short-Term Visit Passes, which are valid for up to 30 days, from marrying here. Nonetheless, for exceptional cases, the Registrar will be empowered to waive this requirement should he or she be satisfied that there is good reason to do so.
15 We also want to restrict the persons who can obtain information from the State Marriage Register. Clauses 18 and 39 will amend the existing Section 27 and existing Section 180 of the Women’s Charter, to allow the Minister to make rules on the provision of copies or extracts from the Register. Information from the Register contains personal particulars of the parties, including their NRIC numbers, and we wish to prevent the misuse of such information. Separately, individuals will still retain two free online searches within a 12-month period, or may opt for a paid search, to enquire as to whether a person is married. These searches will show if there is a marriage record for the party in question and the date of marriage, with the name and NRIC of the spouse redacted. This search function will remain available to all, and is not limited only to couples intending to marry.
16 Next, Clause 15 will repeal the existing Section 24 and replace it with a new Section 23, to allow religious ceremonies to be conducted before, on or after solemnisation. Unlike when the Women’s Charter was first enacted, the general public is now aware that parties must go through the solemnisation process to be married in the eyes of the law. The Registry of Marriages has also received appeals to allow the religious ceremony to take place before or during the solemnisation, and so we wish to remove unnecessary restrictions.
17 Lastly, Clause 40 repeals and re-enacts the existing Section 180A to introduce new safeguards for Licensed Solemnisers by according them protection from personal liability if they had acted in good faith and with reasonable care.
III. DIVORCE-RELATED PROPOSALS
18 I will now move on to the next category of proposals, which pertains to divorce. These proposals seek to amend the law on divorce in line with the aims of therapeutic justice in the divorce process and enhance support for those undergoing divorce.
19 In November 2017, MSF, MinLaw and FJC formed the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System, or the RERF Committee, in short. The RERF Committee made its recommendations, aimed at further strengthening the family justice system, and submitted its report in September 2019. The RERF’s aspiration was the adoption of therapeutic justice in the family justice system. In the context of family justice and couples undergoing divorce, therapeutic justice is a “lens of care” that seeks to help distressed families move forward in a more positive way. It seeks not to position parties as adversaries in court, but as problem-solvers, collaborating to seek solutions that will facilitate healing, restoration and the recasting of a move that is positive in the future. We are proposing to effect these recommendations through the Women’s Charter amendments.
20 Today, under the Women’s Charter, divorcing parties must prove the sole ground for divorce, which is the “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage” before a divorce is granted. To do this, they may cite one or more of the existing five facts. There are three fault-based facts of adultery, desertion, and unreasonable behaviour, and two non-fault facts of separation of three years with consent and of 4 years without.
21 To better understand how to incorporate Therapeutic Justice in the divorce process, we engaged more than 150 divorcees and other stakeholders who have been closely involved and acquainted with the divorce process on their experiences.
22 I would like to tell you a story shared during one of our engagements. Jane, which is not her real name, shared the pain that she went through during her divorce three years ago. Initially, she and her ex-husband had wanted to settle their divorce amicably. However, they had to pinpoint each other’s faults to prove that their marriage had broken down irretrievably. And this led to many quarrels and worsened their relationship. While Jane admitted that there were faults on both sides, she wished there was an option to allow them to acknowledge they were jointly responsible rather than blame each other.
23 In fact, in our engagements with social service practitioners and several religious organisations, they had also shared how they had worked in earnest and as best as they could with couples but there were instances where the couples were just unable to reconcile. In such cases, where there are children involved in the marriage, the marriage is no longer a matter between just the couple. Children are innocent parties involved in an unfortunate situation and we must try as much as possible to minimise their exposure to the pain and conflict that often accompanies divorce.
24 However, with the current divorce regime, we have found that where parties agree on the divorce, having to cite one of the existing facts, may
a. Force parties to point fingers
at each other as they cite reasons to prove one of the three fault-based facts, or dredge up past hurts to prove the facts. This can cause the child to be caught in the middle as allegations of misdeeds are being made by either or both of their parents
against the other.
b. If parties were to cite separation as a fact so as to avoid blaming each other, they have to put their lives on hold for three to four years, which can be harmful to the couple and their children as the relationship between the couple would likely be tense and unstable during the period of separation. Many divorcees we spoke to shared that until the divorce is final, they could not focus on their children though they wanted to.
Introducing a sixth fact of “Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage”
25 Hence, in line with the Family Justice Court’s approach of therapeutic justice, Clause 29 repeals the current Section 95 and enacts a new Section 95A, to introduce Divorce by Mutual Agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage as a sixth fact that parties may cite to show that their marriage has irretrievably broken down. This aims to reduce acrimony in divorce and better allow the family to heal and move on. Irretrievable breakdown of the marriage will remain the sole ground for divorce.
What is DMA?
26 Under the new Section 95A(1)(f) and subsection (6)(a), parties may rely on this sixth fact if they mutually agree that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. But this is not a simple “handshake” of a mutual agreement to divorce. Instead, parties will submit to the court
iii. The reasons leading them to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably broken down;
iv. The efforts made to reconcile; and
v. Considerations given to the arrangements to be made in relation to their children and financial affairs.
27 Subsection (6)(b) also states the court must consider the
stated matters in deciding whether to order further mediation, counselling, or family support programmes. This may happen if the court finds the required submission is insufficient or believes there is a possibility of reconciliation. Lastly, subsection
(6)(c) states that the court must reject any agreement if the court considers that reconciliation is reasonably possible.
28 We therefore envisage the key aspects of Divorce by Mutual Agreement to be
Responsibility, where unlike fault-based facts, parties may cite reasons where they take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage. For example, they may cite deep-seated differences in values.
vii. Reconciliation, as efforts to reconcile are explicitly required and the court can order interventions and must reject any agreement if it concludes that reconciliation is reasonably possible.
viii. Joint consideration of post-divorce arrangements, to set parties into the right frame to jointly consider their children and financial affairs so as to reduce tension at the ancillary matters stage, where the issues of the children, division of matrimonial assets and maintenance are discussed, and better ensure positive outcomes post-divorce.
What is the test under DMA to show that the marriage has broken down irretrievably?
29 I will now elaborate more on the test under Divorce by Mutual Agreement
ix. First, parties’ must agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably, and explain the reasons leading them to conclude this, they must
state attempts they have made at reconciliation, and they must state considerations they have given to the arrangements to be made for their financial affairs and children post-divorce. A bare agreement without reasons is not enough. Also, as with
agreements in other contexts, parties must be acting voluntarily, have the requisite knowledge of the terms and intend to enter into the agreement.
x. Second, beyond what generally constitutes an agreement in other contexts, the courts will reject the agreement if there remains a reasonable possibility that parties might reconcile. This is a parties-centric test assessed based on the circumstances of each individual case. The reasons given by parties will inform the assessment. For instance, in cases where previous efforts at reconciliation were few and insufficient, where reasons provided on the breakdown of the marriage appear vague and arbitrary, and where parties do not seem entirely certain of their decision, the court may choose not to accept the agreement.
Will the court assess the sufficiency of reasons?
30 The sufficiency or otherwise of the parties’ reasons will inform the court’s assessment as to whether there remains a reasonable possibility of reconciliation. Whether there is such a possibility is a factual question in each case. As a parties-centric test, the possibility of reconciliation does not require the court to impose an external, objective test for whether the marriage has broken down. At the same time, it permits the court to weed out sham or frivolous agreements, or cases where the parties are seeking a divorce for collateral reasons. We leave it to the courts to apply the test in actual cases, and to develop the case law in this area.
31 If the court believes there is a reasonable possibility of reconciliation, it can send the parties for mediation, counselling, and family support programmes. In some cases, this might salvage the marriage. In other cases, this would confirm there truly is no longer a reasonable possibility of reconciliation.
32 There may be concerns that parties who wish to rely on DMA may request their lawyers to frame the court documents in a manner that suggests that they have tried their best to reconcile, although this may not be true. Divorce lawyers must therefore continue to behave ethically, provide proper advice in line with the principles of Therapeutic Justice, and continue to uphold their duties as officers of the court and to assist in the administration of justice. A fundamental mindset shift is necessary within the divorce process, where parties are not positioned as adversaries. They are part of a family unit, and while they have ended their marriage, they will always be family to their children. The focus should be on promoting healing and transitioning into the next phase with dignity. All involved in the divorce process must embrace this mindset shift, especially divorce lawyers, who are often closest to the parties in the process. More must be done to foster healing in the relationship. Therefore, we are exploring amending terms such as “defendant” and “plaintiff” to less adversarial terms. We are considering the feasibility of amending these terms under separate legislation.
Will DMA lead to a ‘quick and easy’ divorce or unwittingly allow an easy exit for those in sham marriages?
33 I would like to emphasise that DMA will not lead to a ‘quick and easy’ divorce.
i. The sole ground of divorce remains, which is the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. All safeguards of the divorce
framework today will continue to apply, including the 3-year time bar on filing for divorce and the 3-month period before the divorce is finalised. The court also retains the power to refuse to grant a divorce if it would not be just and reasonable.
ii. Second, within the DMA framework itself, there are safeguards
a. Parties must explain the basis for their mutual agreement on the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage, what attempts
they have made at reconciliation, and what considerations they have in regard to their financial affairs and children.
b. The court has the power to order parties to attend mediation, counselling and family support programmes. This will help filter out cases where reconciliation is still reasonably possible.
c. The court has the power to reject an agreement to divorce if there remains a reasonable possibility of reconciliation.
iii. I should also point out that entering into a marriage of convenience is an offence. Such marriages are void under the Women’s Charter.
34 There may be concerns that a vulnerable spouse may be coerced into agreeing to divorce under DMA. This is not a new concern, or one specific to DMA, as a vulnerable spouse could today already be coerced into agreeing to the divorce. We rely primarily on family lawyers to prevent such cases. In addition, the Mandatory Parenting Programme*, or MPP, which is a mandatory pre-filing programme for parents that I will elaborate on later, can act as a safeguard against this as the counsellor may identify and assist such spouses. I would also like to point out that DMA does not absolve either party from their responsibilities in providing maintenance to their child or spouse if the court makes such an order.
*Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) has been renamed to Mandatory Co-Parenting Programme (CPP) from 15 January 202335 I would also like to highlight that DMA is different from the type of ‘no-fault’ divorce in other jurisdictions where parties are not required to take responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage. Unlike in other jurisdictions, DMA will require parties to state the reasons that have led them to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably broken down. In doing so, parties would have to jointly take responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage. One party also cannot unilaterally divorce the other.
36 Therefore, the DMA framework strikes a balance between two principles (1) that marriage is a public institution and divorce is a serious matter; and (2) when a marriage has truly broken down, the law should permit a divorce without creating unnecessary acrimony.
Extending the Mandatory Parenting Programme to the simplified divorce track
37 I will now move on to the other divorce-related proposals. For parents in the process of the divorce, we want to support them in co-parenting effectively. Currently, where a party who has minor children files for divorce on the standard track, i.e. without having reached an agreement with his/her spouse on the reason for divorce or the ancillary matters, he or she must attend the MPP. The same applies for a party who has been served with divorce papers on the standard track and wishes to file a Counterclaim. However, parties who agree on the divorce and all ancillary matters and thus file for divorce on the Simplified Divorce Track, do not currently need to attend the MPP.
38 However, MSF’s 2020 Study on Co-Parenting Styles showed that regardless whether respondents reported an uncontested or contested divorce, the proportion of divorcees who reported practising co-operative co-parenting among uncontested (38%) and contested (37%) divorces are similar. Hence, we will amend the Women’s Charter (Parenting Programme) Rules to extend MPP to all parents with minor children on the simplified divorce track.
39 The MPP encourages parents to make informed decisions that prioritise the well-being of their children and helps parents understand the importance of co-parenting and the practical issues arising from a divorce. The MPP will be enhanced to focus more on co-parenting and provide personalised information for parents. This would include self-assessments and information on where to seek timely support.
40 We recognise that there may be other caregivers involved in the child’s life, such as grandparents, and Clause 38 introduces a new Section 139I to empower the court to advise that such key related persons participate in necessary programmes as well.
41 The MSF remains committed to saving marriages where possible. For couples who decide to work on their marriage while attending MPP, they could choose to attend marital counselling services provided by FAM@FSC. If couples are of the same faith and are open to marital counselling provided by religious organisations, they may opt for counselling provided by such organisations. We will work with interested religious organisations who wish to be involved.
Empowering the court to advise that minor children participate in the Programme for Children
42 I’ll l ike to mention Sarah, who is in her 20s and wishes to remain anonymous, reached out to MSF to share her experience as a child of divorce. She remembers standing outside a lawyer’s office, as her mother told her to tell her father that he will never see her again if he does not turn up. At the young age of 8, she was often made the middle person, passing messages between her parents. She felt distressed and unsafe, yet was afraid to reach out for help. She emphasised the need to better support children of divorced parents through counselling and check-ins to address these problems early.
43 Currently, MSF has the Children-in-Between Programme to support parents and children impacted by divorce. It is a group programme comprising parental and child components. For children, the programme educates them on positive ways to cope with their
parents’ divorce and skills to share their feelings. However, out of about 6,500 children affected by divorce annually between 2016 and 2020, fewer than 200 attend the Children-in-Between programme annually.
44 The divorce process should prioritise the best interest of the child, and ensure children are supported. Therefore, Clause 36 introduces a new Section 132A to allow the court to advise parents to secure the child’s attendance at the Programme for Children at any stage of the proceedings or after the final judgment has been granted, if the court thinks that this would be beneficial.
45 The Programme for Children emphasises and encompasses a range of possible support for children, including an assessment of the needs of the child, and specific interventions, such as group programmes, counselling or psychological services. The assessment would be used to make recommendations to parents on suitable interventions. Interventions of varying intensity will be available to address the differing needs.
46 If the court’s advice is not complied with, the court will have the discretion to make any order as it deems fit, and in relevant cases, may take the non-compliance of the parents into consideration in making custody, care & control, and access orders, among other relevant factors in determining the welfare of the child.
Simplifying court processes and increasing range of measures for the enforcement of child access orders
47 Next, I will share our proposals to enhance the child access order enforcement regime. Currently, where there is non-compliance with a child access order, the only recourse for the access parent is to commence committal proceedings or apply for care and control orders pertaining to the children to be varied. However, this can be a difficult and time-consuming process, and it may be some time before the access parent is able to gain access.
48 Therefore, Clause 35 enacts Section 126B to provide a range of measures for the enforcement of child access orders.