On the Women’s Charter – Speech by Sylvia Lim

This Bill tabled by the Ministry of Social and Family Development makes significant and detailed changes to the way family violence cases are handled.   

Among the key changes brought about by the Bill is the setting up of a 24-hour Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team (DVERT). DVERT will be empowered to issue Emergency Orders at the scene to require suspected offenders to leave domestic premises immediately and stay away for up to 14 days, while the victim applies to court for protection orders.  

The Bill also gives the court powers to issue a broader range of orders in domestic violence situations; in addition to the traditional orders such as the PPO (personal protection order), EO (expedited order) and DEO (domestic exclusion order), the court will additionally be able to issue “Stay Away Orders” to require offenders not to go to places where the victim will frequent e.g. work places; the value of this cannot be under-stated, if we recall a past incident in 2004 where an offender confronted his spouse at her workplace at Tuas and killed her there.  Another new form of court order is the “No Contact Order”, that will protect the victim from being harassed by the offender, not just physically but through other means of communication.   

Another aspect of the Bill is more effective monitoring of orders issued, for example possibly requiring those subject to orders to wear electronic monitoring devices.  I believe that such certainty of detection will deter breaches of court orders.  

Besides the contents of the provisions, the MSF has also reviewed feedback from the public and consulted with many stakeholders, including Family Service Centres, crisis shelters, healthcare workers, and lawyers. 

Having considered all these, the Workers’ Party supports the Bill.  That said, I have two concerns that I wish to raise.

First, this Bill makes it clear that the MSF is the lead Ministry on domestic violence, with the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) playing a somewhat secondary role.  For instance, my understanding of the 24-hour DVERT is that it will be staffed by MSF, with the police coming along to attend cases.  Furthermore, any Emergency Orders issued by DVERT will not be issued by police, but by MSF officers.  This apparent secondary role for the police leads me to worry that calls for police assistance in domestic situations, however serious, may be passed on to MSF automatically or risk being no-crimed in the police records.   This would not be justifiable.  

Let me illustrate my concern with scenarios.  Suppose a report is received that a person has threatened to harm his or her spouse with a knife, and upon agencies arriving at the scene, the presence of the knife is confirmed.  This scenario should be properly classified as criminal intimidation, which is an arrestable offence.  Or take another example:  Someone calls for assistance due to domestic violence, and upon arrival, the response team sees that the injury is serious, and may be a case of voluntarily causing grievous hurt, another arrestable offence.   

In these scenarios, would the police handle the matter as it would normally do if the parties were unrelated to each other, i.e. classify the cases accordingly as criminal intimidation and voluntarily causing grievous hurt, arrest the suspect and possibly charge the person in court with the appropriate offence under the Penal Code?    Or would DVERT see it as basically a case of family violence to be proceeded with under the Women’s Charter, thereby inadvertently downgrading the seriousness of the incidents? 

The fundamental clarification I am seeking is this: in domestic cases where arrestable crimes have likely been committed, can the government assure the public that the police will follow the usual criminal processes and not simply leave it to MSF to handle such cases under the Women’s Charter?

The second clarification I have is on the tremendous demand on manpower that the provisions will entail.  The Explanatory Statement to the Bill has confirmed that the Bill will involve the Government in extra financial expenditure, the exact amount of which cannot at present be ascertained.  Has the MSF projected how many more staff will be needed to implement the provisions of this Bill?  Some of the provisions will entail round-the-clock teams, such as DVERT.   They also need to be highly-trained, as attending to such cases will involve tense situations and may expose officers to physical danger.  As for the police, they are expected to support DVERT’s work.  We are all aware of the long-standing manpower challenges of frontline policing.  How does the government intend to meet the significant manpower demands that the Bill entails?

That said, the Bill is a significant commitment towards improving the response of agencies to cases of family violence.  I hope it will work well.