Fewer divorcees defaulting on maintenance

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Fall in number of defaulters jailed, applications for enforcement orders

Fewer divorcees have been defaulting on maintenance payments since landmark amendments were made to the Women's Charter three years ago.

Last year, 19 people were jailed for failing to pay up, compared with 45 in 2011.

The number of court applications for enforcement orders compelling former spouses to maintain their ex-marital partners and children has also dropped from 1,900 in 2009 to 1,700 last year. A small number of these cases involved women paying their former husbands.

"These figures show that we are seeing an improvement," said senior divorce lawyer Tan Siew Kim.

In 2011, the Women's Charter - which oversees marriage, divorce and maintenance issues - was amended to allow the courts to impose new sanctions beyond fines and imprisonment.

They include financial counselling, community service and attachment of earnings orders, which make the person's employer pay the maintenance money from his monthly wage.

Complainants can also get a credit bureau to list the debt in a defaulter's credit report, which can be accessed by banks and financial institutions. This makes it tougher for a defaulter to take out loans or sign up for hire- purchase schemes.

Since the new measures were introduced, the court has issued an annual average of 118 attachment of earnings orders and two banker's guarantees. It has also made 10 people go for financial counselling and two for community service each year.

Family lawyer Malathi Das, first vice-president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), said the drop in number of those being jailed may mean that defaulters are paying up to avoid imprisonment, or that the court has been able to secure payment through other means.

"Counselling can be useful in helping the person recognise the consequences of not paying up," she said. "Community service orders may have a deterrent effect if he feels embarrassed."

However, figures show that many divorcees still have to go through the hassle of repeatedly applying for enforcement orders each time their former spouses fail to pay up.

From 2008 to 2011, about half of those granted enforcement orders had to apply for at least another one within two years.

"Wives have to work or have children to take care of and cannot keep on applying for leave each time to go down to the Family Court or SCWO's Maintenance Support Central to file such orders in person," said family lawyer Rajan Chettiar.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development told The Straits Times one common reason defaulters cannot pay up is that they are unemployed or have other financial obligations.

In such situations, the ministry said that the defaulter can seek to reduce the amount of the maintenance order from the State Courts or obtain financial aid from its social service offices.

Once every three months, Siti (not her real name), 31, makes the trip from her one-room rented flat in Toa Payoh to the Family Court in Chinatown to file for an enforcement order.

Her former husband is supposed to pay her $800 a month to support her and their three children since their divorce three years ago. But the money does not come through every month.

"It is very tiring for me to know that I have to do this all over again every few months," said the housewife, who has to take along her eight-year-old autistic son each time.

Last year, the SCWO called for a new central agency to collect and disburse maintenance money so that both parties can concentrate on rebuilding their lives. This is how countries such as Australia and Britain deal with the issue.

Lawyer Ms Tan backed this idea, adding: "Now, the burden of proof to show that her ex-husband is working for the attachment of earnings to be issued lies on the woman. But the onus should not be on her since it is her partner who defaulted."

jantai@sph.com.sg

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