Singapore is a mostly fun and carefree experience for many expats: plenty of travel and social gatherings, and no gloomy winters to endure! Like everywhere in the world, though, there are those who find themselves in unhappy relationships, facing marital and domestic issues that can culminate in legal proceedings. Here, Franca Ciambella, managing director of Singapore-licensed law firm, Consilium, gives us an update on Singapore’s family law.
What is family law?
It’s a body of law that encompasses the relationships between spouses, parents and children. It includes divorce law, adoption, maintenance, custody, separation, division of assets and common law relationships.
How is family law different in Singapore from other countries?
In a few ways. Singapore has a three-year residency requirement for jurisdiction – most other countries have one year or less. Similarly, the period of separation as a ground for divorce is three years – much longer than the one year required in most countries.
The biggest difference is that there is no mechanism whereby men can apply for maintenance or spousal support – this is only available to women, even if the wife earns more money than her husband.
Two other differences: Singapore doesn’t have a divorce law – the provisions are found in the Women’s Charter;and a common law marriage or a “de facto” marriage is not legally possible.
In dispute resolutions, we’ve heard that the wife has more claim here than in many countries. Is that right?
No, both spouses have equal claim, except that, as mentioned above, only women can claim for maintenance. Also, in determining child custody for very young children (under seven, usually), the court tends to award it to the mother and not the father, provided that also meets the child’s best interests.
Has family law changed much during your time in Singapore?
Yes, in several ways. Firstly, there are more expats who are using the Singapore courts for their family disputes. In the past, most people went home. Part of the reason is that many expats are staying longer in Singapore, and fulfilling the three-year residency requirement for jurisdiction here.
Another is that the local courts are not overloaded and disputes can be heard quickly – for example, you can have an interim divorce judgment within a couple of months of filing.
Other changes include a movement towards resolving family disputes through mediation or negotiation, instead of litigation. Since 1997, the Singapore Mediation Centre has made many efforts to encourage parties to go through mediation; this is slowly gaining momentum locally.
The courts have also clarified many issues through recent judgments. For example, in 2012, it stated that gifts given during a marriage are to be deducted from a spouse’s share of matrimonial assets during a divorce.
Any new changes in the pipeline?
Yes, quite a few, especially regarding the process. Recommendations have been made for an inter-agency group to be formed for reviewing family justice with a focus on counselling and mediation, so the best possible amicable outcome can be achieved for all parties concerned.
It has also been recommended that courts and judges play a more “inquisitorial role” in matrimonial proceedings – that is, ask questions of the parties rather than rely on legal submissions – in order to understand emotions, especially those of young children, and to ensure that the right directions are granted.
Consilium Law is at 1 Scotts Road, #16-02 Shaw Centre. Call 6235 2700