'Good move' to crack down on maintenance defaulters

Family lawyers, social workers all for action against those who won't pay spousal support

Family lawyer Malathi Das once had a client whose former husband drove to court in a luxury car but wore slippers and tatty clothes so he could tell the judge he had no money to pay maintenance.

It was only when he faced a jail term that he pulled out a stack of money from his pocket, said Ms Das.

Former spouses will have a harder time dodging court-mandated support with a maintenance record officer the Government said it will appoint to identify such defaulters.

Family lawyers and social workers welcome the move, saying it would give the court clarity to give harsher penalties, such as ordering the defaulter's employer to pay the maintenance out of his salary or sentencing the defaulter to jail. These are permitted through 2011 amendments to the Women's Charter.

"Some defaulters really do try to play the system and test the stamina of the ex-spouse as well as the judge's intuition," said Ms Das, who is also president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations.

ARTFUL DODGERS

Some defaulters really do try to play the system and test the stamina of the ex-spouse as well as the judge's intuition.

FAMILY LAWYER MALATHI DAS, on those who dodge court-mandated spousal support

The Government intends to be very firm with this group of "won't pay" defaulters, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said on Monday as he announced further amendments to the Women's Charter.

"We intend to seriously stop such irresponsible behaviour," he told Parliament. Other changes include letting men who cannot work because of illness or disability claim maintenance from their ex-wives.

Chasing maintenance is troublesome for the former spouse and some eventually give up, said Ms Petrine Lim, principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre.

She said: "It disrupts their schedule. They need to take leave from work or find care arrangement for the kids." Having someone investigate the defaulter's finances enables the legal system to help women fight for their rights.

In 2013, there were 1,700 court applications for enforcement orders compelling former spouses to maintain their ex-partners and children. This compares to 1,900 in 2009, before harsher penalties were introduced in 2011. More recent figures were not available at press time.

By April 2014, there was an average of 118 orders each year for employers to directly pay out maintenance from defaulters' salaries.

Experts hope the officer can do what the former spouse cannot.

"Often, she will not have access to his financial data, especially after they have been divorced for some time. In some cases, they may not even be able to locate him to serve enforcement papers," said Ms Das.

Court processes can also be shortened. "If this person can uncover the true financial position of parties then, really, we are in a better position," said family lawyer Loh Wai Mooi. "The trial itself can go up to about a month or two, and for that month or two, the person who needs the money is not being paid."

But family lawyer Ivan Cheong said there should be limits to how information is obtained. "If the officer can go to the bank and demand to know the defaulter's account balance, that would be a very invasive move. We need to balance the need for justice... against the sensitivities of private information."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline ''Good move' to crack down on maintenance defaulters'. Print Edition | Subscribe