On the Family Justice Reform Bill – Speech by Louis Chua


The aim of the Family Justice Reform Bill is to amend the Family Justice Act, Women’s Charter, and the Guardianship of Infants Act to among others, simplify family proceedings and to provide sustainable maintenance outcomes.

I am supportive of this Bill and the efforts to strengthen family therapeutic justice. My speech today aims to seek clarifications on certain aspects of the Bill, particularly that relating to providing greater support for both the applicants and respondents to the maintenance enforcement process. At the same time, I will also be speaking on related issues to improve on the education and housing needs of children involved in a divorce. 

Ease of applying for financial assistance

The new section 85 of the Family Justice Reform Bill enables the MEO to refer and provide information regarding the parties involved to a social service officer. This step comes after the MEO obtains relevant information from the involved parties and determines that one or more of the parties involved would require financial assistance.

I appreciate the inclusion of such a step in the Maintenance Enforcement Process. As what my honourable friend MP Jamus Lim alluded to in his Committee of Supply speech this year, the dignity of the needy should be retained even while applying for financial assistance. I wonder if the parties referred to a social service officer still need to complete the relevant paperwork and go through a similar application process for financial assistance, had he or she made the application to the SSO separately? 

After all, under section 86, the MEO will be empowered to obtain information about the parties’ assets and means from stipulated entities such as certain Government agencies, banks, and the Central Depository. Moreover, if the MEO and the courts already have access to such information, should we do away with the requirement for parties to the maintenance enforcement process to submit documents such as bank statements, which is detailed in the MEP process workflow? 

Such a move would greatly reduce the administrative burden of applicants especially, and reduce the emotional burden faced by the parties involved as they navigate through this patch of troubled waters in their lives.

Providing greater assurances to maintenance applicants

While the MEP workflow allows for the smooth application of financial assistance, it does not guarantee that each application will yield a successful outcome. 

Section 81 allows for the court to “vary, suspend, discharge, rescind, set aside, or revoke the maintenance order.” This could either be due to an application by either party or a settlement by both parties.

This step comes after the MEO has referred the relevant parties for financial assistance. What then happens if the application of financial assistance for the relevant parties is unsuccessful?

Potentially, such a problem would especially impact those whose income exceeds the income threshold for financial assistance but are burdened with a multitude of financial commitments. 

Maintenance payments are key for applicants to pay for their living expenses, foot medical bills, and repay other arrears and mortgages that they have. Hence, with a reduction or variation in the maintenance order, divorcees would face an additional financial burden and a lower quality of life. This would especially hit the children involved and their caregivers hard.

I propose that the Ministry consider granting additional consideration for, or even guaranteeing a baseline level of financial assistance to parties referred by the MEO during cases pertaining to the enforcement of a Maintenance Order, especially if it involves a reduced maintenance amount. 

This would help to ensure that there would be minimal impact on the welfare of the parties involved, increase the efficiency of the MEP, and produce sustainable maintenance outcomes.

Providing training for judicial interviews of the child

Clause 12 of the Bill states that the Family Justice Rules can prescribe the mode through which the child’s wishes may be determined if the court wishes to consider it in its ruling. According to the media release, this may include judicial interviews with the child.

In the case of AZB vs AZC [2016], the Family Justice Courts laid out that judicial interviews of children are suitable in the Singaporean context. In the ruling, Justice Debbie Ong also highlighted the difficulties faced when conducting judicial interviews of children, such as there being insufficient time available to build rapport between the judge and child, communication difficulties between the child and judge, and discomfort towards the court process by the child.

One recommendation laid out by the court is that judges should be equipped with the necessary skills to handle judicial interviews with the child, which could be achieved by training judicial staff. 

This is a move seen in other countries with the common law system such as Australia, which called for the training of judicial staff back in 1995. Hence, Singapore could also consider adopting a similar approach.

We could consider implementing guidelines as to providing an environment that facilitates the process effectively, such as determining the parties present at the meeting, the tone of the meeting, and information briefed to the child. Risks such as parental interference could also be mitigated by instructing parents not to ask their children about the interview.

These are some of the skills and knowledge that could be imparted to judges as part of a training programme to effectively conduct a judicial interview of a child. This would enable them to communicate with the child to gain a better understanding of their needs, wants, and views regarding the matter, which could aid them in their judgement.

The introduction of the Bill provides us with the opportunity to implement these measures, which would ensure that the child’s voice is heard loud and clear, especially pertaining to a matter that affects their lives substantially.

Holistic support for parents and children

Before I conclude, I would also like to make some brief comments on issues outside the ambit of this Bill, relating to the education and housing needs of children involved in a divorce – two of the fundamental rights of a child. 

Strengthening the maintenance regime is arguably a key step to ensuring that the basic living needs of children and their caregivers, such as good nutrition are met. At the same time, administrative procedures, and issues that divorcees face could also reopen wounds and cause further trauma. I thus believe there is room for us to improve on processes and policies relating to the child’s education and housing needs. 

On education, I understand that parents who have joint custody of their child need to come to a common agreement on their child’s school transfer.

The relevant court order setting out the custody arrangements pertaining to the child will be required at the point of reporting to the current school. The parent who submits the application for the child will be required to produce a signed Letter of Consent from the other parent. 

To what extent is this being operationalised and practised in our schools? The reason I am asking is also because in the MOE’s step by step guide for primary school transfers, it is stated that and I quote, “In making this application, I understand that should the other parents / legal guardian have any basis to contest this arrangement in the future, I will resolve this issue with him / her”. It appears that responsibility to resolve any disputes on transfers is delegated to the parent, with no mention of any letters of consent or undertaking required. 

When it comes to preschools, are there also similar requirements by ECDA for a letter of consent before any enrolment or transfer is made? Or could a parent with care and control of the child enrol him or her in a preschool, without the approval of the other parent with joint custody. 

On housing, divorcees with shared care and control of their children have an equal right to list the children in their application to buy or rent an HDB flat. However, as an individual is only allowed to be listed in one HDB flat application, the HDB requires divorced parents to come to an agreement before either party lists their child in a flat application. Considering that we are looking at divorcees here, coming to an agreement is often easier said than done. 

While one party can form a family nucleus with his or her children, the other party will not be able to. For a young divorcee under the age of 35 for example, he or she will not be able to apply for a flat by themselves under the singles scheme and not be able to form a family nucleus with his or her children. This could be especially problematic for some parents facing financial hardship and without family support, as it will not be practically possible for this parent to care for his or her child, without a stable place to call home. 

Both divorcees and their children would need a roof over their heads. So, I hope our policies can recognise this and ensure that all Singaporeans can have access to housing and not have to worry about basic needs such as access to shelter. 


To conclude, I am supportive of the Bill, and I hope the additional suggestions I have made can be considered, to alleviate the anxiety and anguish inflicted upon the now broken families and enable those involved to better pick themselves up and restart their lives afresh.

After all, as the Chinese saying goes, 孩子是无辜的。Children of divorced parents are already facing difficult circumstances and are at risk of psychological and other adjustment issues. Let us continue to do all we can to better improve on the welfare of the children involved and minimise potential points of conflict in their growing up years.