Why It Matters

Curbing default on maintenance for children from husbands

For many women, the failure to receive maintenance for their children from their former husbands is the bane of their existence. It plunges many into financial hardship. For others, it leads to all sorts of domestic tension that dogs everyone involved for years.

The non-payment of maintenance is a persistent problem the Government has addressed. In 2011, the Women's Charter was amended to allow the courts to impose new sanctions beyond fines and jail time. For example, the courts can direct an employer to pay the defaulter's wages to the person entitled to it.

An average of 2,777 applications for enforcement orders have been filed each year for the past three years. In 2009, before the 2011 initiatives went into effect, there were close to 3,600 such applications, which compel the debtors to pay.

These initiatives have reduced the number of defaults, but non-payment remains a headache.

Last Friday, the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Family Justice Courts said the Maintenance Record Officer (MRO) scheme will be beefed up. The goal is to identify those in financial hardship from the first time they file an enforcement application, so that help may be given earlier, instead of only after multiple applications have been filed.

Some of the former husbands truly cannot afford to pay - they may be in jail or have lost their jobs - and giving women the needed financial aid eases their woes and prevents problems from snowballing. Social workers can also work with the men to see how they can contribute to their children's upbringing.

Cases are now referred to the MRO only if both parties agree, and they can choose what information to declare. But the authorities are looking at changing this, so that those involved will have no choice but to furnish whatever financial data is asked of them.

This is critical to fulfil one of the MRO's key roles: to identify those who can afford but refuse to pay maintenance, for whatever reason. Courts can then impose harsher penalties on recalcitrant defaulters.

Once the changes are implemented, hopefully, there will be fewer people who wilfully default as they know they will be taken to task by the courts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'Curbing default on maintenance'. Print Edition | Subscribe