On the Family Justice Reform Bill – Speech by Dennis Tan

Mr Deputy Speaker, the Family Justice Reform Bill proposes to establish a new Maintenance Enforcement Process, which kicks in when applicants apply to enforce a maintenance order in the event of non-payment by their former spouse. The new Maintenance Enforcement Process will apply to maintenance orders under the Women’s Charter, Guardianship of Infants Act, Administration of Muslim Law Act, Maintenance Orders (Reciprocal Enforcement) Act and Maintenance of Parents Act.  I support the intent of this Bill to improve the enforcement process for maintenance payments. I would like to bring up a few brief points regarding the new process. 

Mr Deputy Speaker, over the years, many divorced spouses have faced  various difficulties in getting their former spouses to make their maintenance payments on time and even at all. Many spouses actually even gave up trying to get their payments.  

Mr Deputy Speaker, under the current system, a common and frustrating experience for many is that former spouses delay or refuse to pay their maintenance for their ex partners or children and do not pay up until their former partners take up an application in court to enforce maintenance payments. Frequently, for those who can afford to pay, the payment can even be at the doorstep of the court room, just before the hearing. On such an occasion, I understand that the applicant does not even get its legal costs paid despite having to take out such application. And for many who default on their maintenance payments, their former spouses often had to take multiple applications.  Many applicants had to take leave from work each time and would even lose income from spending time instructing their lawyers and attending court hearings. Many, I am told, just gave up after a few tries. They just couldn’t afford the time and efforts. Many prefer to spend the time earning more income to make up for their former spouses’ maintenance payments instead of expending time and efforts in applying repeatedly for enforcement.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to ask the minister, under the new Maintenance Enforcement Process, how will the new process  ensure that such phenomena will not happen or will be minimized? I note that under the new process, if a maintenance order has been complied with, the applicant will have to make an application, albeit online and the Court may make a Show-Payment Order requiring proof of payment to the court and specify an imprisonment term for the respondent’s breach of the Show-Payment Order. Does that mean that the respondent can pay up after such an application is made for a Show-Payment Order or when he receives such an order? 

Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the new requirement of the MEOs having to distinguish between respondents who cannot afford to pay for maintenance due to their finance situation and those who refuse to pay when they can afford to do so. This is important; it will help to deter and weed out those who game the system by refusing to pay until at least an application for enforcement is made. 

Next I note that under Clause 89, once a maintenance enforcement application has been made, the MEOs have to prepare and submit a report to the court. While the said clause allows the MEO to provide an interim report to any party whom the MEO thinks any information in the MEO’s report ought to be brought to the attention of such party, the bill does not seem to require the MEO to provide the full report to the applicant, the respondent or both. This is somewhat unusual in our civil legal processes as documents or evidence to be considered in any proceedings are traditionally required to be disclosed to all parties in the same proceedings. Moreover, it would also be fair to both parties. For example, the applicant should know why the application fails and both parties should know its contents to decide whether it is fair and should be appealed against. If the respondent can afford his maintenance payments, disclosure of such report to the applicant may also deter the respondent from trying to hide his financial status. I also note that Clause 90 allows for redaction.   I would like to ask the Minister what is the rationale, if any, for not allowing automatic and full disclosure of the MEO’s report to both parties in an application. I would also like to ask what type of information will likely be redacted from the report or excluded from the interim report if the judge decides that such report should be given to either party.

Mr Deputy Speaker, aside from the concerns I have raised, I support the Bill. I hope that the new MEP will significantly reduce incidents of deliberate and late or non-payment of maintenance.