1. The Family Justice Reform Bill (the “Bill”) was introduced for First Reading in Parliament today.
2. The Bill amends various pieces of legislation such as the Family Justice Act (“FJA”), the Women’s Charter (“WC”), and the Guardianship of Infants Act (“GIA”). It introduces reforms to make family proceedings simpler and more efficient, and facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes.
3. The reforms under the Bill are part of the ongoing efforts by the Ministry of Law (“MinLaw"), the Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”) and the Family Justice Courts (“FJC”) to strengthen therapeutic justice elements in the family justice system, and help families in distress to heal and move on with their lives. Ultimately, the changes will increase access to justice for litigants, especially those who cannot afford legal representation.
Reforms to court proceedings and procedure in the FJC
4. The Bill amends primary legislation to support the upcoming revamp of the Family Justice Rules (“FJR”). The FJR revamp will simplify the rules of family proceedings, making them more streamlined and efficient.
5. The Bill also implements the remaining recommendations by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (“RERF Committee”)1. These recommendations aim to reduce acrimony in family proceedings, and ensure a fair outcome without undue delay, complexity and cost. In this regard, the Bill amends legislation in three key ways.
A. Promote efficiency in court proceedings
6. The RERF Committee had noted that unnecessary applications prolong proceedings, promote acrimony and strain judicial resources. The Committee recommended that in appropriate cases, permission should be obtained before a further application may be filed. This will help weed out unmeritorious applications at an early stage.
7. The Bill will therefore empower the court to, amongst other things, disallow the filing of any further application or any document in support of an application without the court’s permission, when it is satisfied that the filing of any application or supporting document will, or is likely to:
a. impede the just, expeditious or economical resolution or disposal of the matter; or
b. have an adverse effect on a child’s welfare.
B. Enhance the judge-led approach
8. The judge-led approach in family proceedings was introduced in 2014 and has contributed to the just, expeditious, and economical disposal of proceedings. The RERF Committee made recommendations on how legislation may provide greater clarity on how the judge-led approach can be applied in family proceedings.
9. To this end, the Bill will provide clarity on the following:
a. First, judges have the power to make orders of a substantive nature on their own accord. This will ensure they have powers to address the immediate needs of the family, where necessary2.
b. Second, 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.
c. Third, judges may impose restrictions on cross-examination in circumstances prescribed in subsidiary legislation, such as when the court is of the opinion that the questioning of a vulnerable witness is unduly intimidating or oppressive.
C. Simplify court terminology
10. The Bill will also simplify terminology for family proceedings. For example, the term “writ” will be replaced by “originating application”, and “plaintiff” replaced by “applicant”. These changes, which have already been made for civil court proceedings3, will make it easier for the public to understand family proceedings. The Bill also introduces a number of technical amendments that clarify, enhance, and streamline court processes.
Facilitating more sustainable maintenance outcomes
11. Non-compliance with orders to pay maintenance continues to be of concern, especially where children are involved and the main caregiver has little or no income.
12. The current maintenance enforcement process may be time consuming and resource intensive for parties, particularly those who do not have the means to engage lawyers. Parties have to spend a significant amount of time to attend physical and virtual court hearings – for daily-rated workers, this can entail forgoing several days of income.
13. In addition, information on parties’ assets and means are not readily available or disclosed in the existing enforcement process. Without such information, it is difficult to distinguish between respondents who cannot pay maintenance and those who refuse to pay. If a respondent is genuinely unable to pay, the applicant’s repeated enforcement attempts would be futile.
14. The Bill will therefore establish a new Maintenance Enforcement Process (“MEP”) which will simplify applications relating to the non-payment of maintenance orders4. The changes include reducing the number of trips parties have to make to court and the overall duration of the enforcement process. Under the MEP, 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. These measures are intended to create more sustainable outcomes and reduce the need for repeat application.
A. Conciliation and access to information on parties’ assets and means
15. Under the MEP, the existing mediation process will be replaced by a conciliation process undertaken by a newly established unit of Maintenance Enforcement Officers (“MEOs”), sited in MinLaw.
16. The MEOs:
a. Will be empowered to obtain information about the parties’ assets and means from stipulated entities, where necessary. Such entities include Government agencies5, banks and the Central Depository (Pte) Limited6. With better information, the MEOs can more accurately determine the parties’ financial circumstances and distinguish between respondents who cannot pay maintenance and those who refuse to pay. The MEOs will also be able to refer needy and suitable parties for financial assistance and other forms of support more quickly.
b. With information on the parties’ financial circumstances, the MEOs will be better placed to help parties reach an amicable out-of-court settlement through the conciliation process. Compared to a mediation process, the MEOs will take a more active role in seeking information and recommending practical solutions to the parties.
c. Will provide the information obtained to the court. With enhanced access to information that is currently not readily available, the court will be in a better position to determine the appropriate orders against a respondent who fails to comply with a maintenance order.
17. Please refer to Annex A for a workflow of the MEP process.
B. Other enhancements to facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes
18. The other changes that will be introduced in the MEP to facilitate more sustainable maintenance outcomes include the following:
a. To effectively deter respondents from continuing refusal to pay maintenance despite having the means to do so, the Bill provides that the court, where satisfied that the maintenance order has been breached, must:
i. Make a Show-Payment Order, which requires a respondent to prove that payment has been made by specified dates; and
ii. Specify a term of imprisonment that the respondent will be liable for if he or she fails to comply with the Show-Payment Order7. The court will not make an imprisonment order if there are special circumstances which would make imprisonment inappropriate, considering circumstances such as the respondent’s state of health or advanced age.
iii. After conciliation, the parties may reach an agreement and the court may record a consent order based on the parties’ agreement. The Bill will empower the court to make additional orders such as a Show-Payment Order to deter the respondent from not complying with the consent order.
b. For respondents who have genuine difficulties paying maintenance, the aim is to work towards more sustainable maintenance payments. Further, if certain conditions are met, the court hearing the enforcement proceedings may vary a maintenance order without parties having to make a formal application.
c. It is sometimes necessary for maintenance claimants to seek an injunction or clawback order when he or she suspects that the respondent is intending to dissipate, or has dissipated, assets to frustrate the enforcement of a maintenance order. However, it can be difficult to find evidence of such intention to dissipate assets. To address such difficulties, the Bill introduces a rebuttable presumption – if certain conditions are satisfied, the respondent will be presumed to have intended to dissipate assets to frustrate a maintenance claim8. In applying for an injunction or clawback order, the applicant may rely on evidence of any such disposition which the MEO may come across in the course of fact-finding.
19. With the MEP, the hope is that applicants will be able to obtain the maintenance due to them in an efficient and timely manner, so that they are able to provide for the daily needs of their families.
20. Time will be needed to operationalise the MEP after the Bill is passed. MinLaw and MSF will provide further updates in due course.