People who face problems getting their monthly maintenance from former spouses can get help earlier.
The Government is beefing up the Maintenance Record Officer (MRO) scheme to identify those in financial hardship from the first time they file an enforcement application to compel their former spouses to pay up. The necessary help will be provided earlier, instead of waiting until multiple applications have been filed.
These officers assist the courts by getting information about the individuals' financial circumstances.
They also help to identify those who refuse to pay - even though they have the means to do so - so that the courts can impose harsher penalties on these recalcitrant defaulters.
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Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Development, announced these changes at the Family Justice Practice Forum yesterday.
He said: "For the parent who requires financial contributions from the other towards the child's upkeep, having to return to court to enforce a maintenance order can be tedious and frustrating. This is especially so when the other parent has the means to pay, but refuses to do so."
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the Family Justice Courts are also looking at including the MROs as part of the court process, but this requires legislative changes.
Currently, cases are referred to these officers only if both parties agree to it. They can also choose what information to declare.
But if the MROs are included as part of the court process, The Straits Times understands that those involved will have no choice but to furnish whatever financial information is asked of them.
The changes will be implemented by the fourth quarter of this year.
Lawyers and social workers interviewed applauded the changes. Lawyer Ivan Cheong said given the choice, recalcitrant defaulters would not agree to the MROs probing their financial situation. So giving people a choice defeats the purpose of the scheme.
Lawyer Lim Chong Boon said he hopes the changes will result in fewer defaults, as the men know they would be taken to task if the officers find out they can afford to pay but refuse to do so. "Some don't want to give their ex-wives money, especially if the divorce was contentious or the ex-wife had an affair."
The non-payment of maintenance continues to be a problem for families here. An average of 2,777 applications for enforcement orders were filed each year in the past three years. An application for enforcement can be filed when at least one payment is not made. About 72 per cent of these orders were filed by former wives. The rest of the applicants include former husbands, current spouses and children.
Those interviewed pointed out that the women and children struggle financially and emotionally when they fail to get maintenance. For example, for many of the women the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO) assist, their income is insufficient to meet their needs and they depend on the maintenance money to survive.
Ms Wong Xun-Ai, programme executive at SCWO's Maintenance Support Central, said: "It also affects the children as some mothers will deny the father access to their children when he fails to pay maintenance. The children may be angry with their father over the situation and this strains their relationship."
The MRO scheme was started in the second half of last year. So far, the officers have handled only six cases. An MSF spokesman said there were few cases as, under the pilot scheme, both parties needed to give consent before an MRO steps in.
The six men, all former husbands, could not afford to pay due to financial difficulties and not because they refused to cough up the money.