Those in matrimonial spats 'may take court orders more seriously'

Welcoming the proposed statute on contempt of court, family lawyers said it will have a positive impact for those caught in matrimonial disputes with a tardy ex.

After a divorce, it is common for parties to flout court orders when it comes to payment of maintenance, access to children and issues relating to matrimonial assets.

Lawyers interviewed said that having a consolidated piece of written law that sets out the consequences of disobeying court orders will make more people sit up and take court orders more seriously.

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing partner Michelle Woodworth described legislating contempt of court as a "progressive evolution". She said: "Codifying the law sends a clear signal that disobedience of court orders and interference with the administration of justice won't be tolerated."

Ms Malathi Das, director at Joyce A. Tan & Partners, said that while the proposed law provides a clearer framework on what steps can be taken and how, it "doesn't really add anything to already-existing remedies" for maintenance enforcement. In other words, the courts have always had the power to hand down jail terms and fines for disobedience of court orders.

SENDING CLEAR SIGNAL

Codifying the law sends a clear signal that disobedience of court orders and interference with the administration of justice won't be tolerated.

MS MICHELLE WOODWORTH, partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

But Harry Elias Partnership partner Ivan Cheong said that with the new Bill, there is greater clarity and it would instil greater confidence in clients that the orders may be effectively enforced. "Increased confidence in the judicial system and the ability to enforce these orders effectively also make clients feel they are not just getting a 'paper' order."

Mr Amolat Singh of Amolat & Partners said that having a "one-stop" piece of legislation that "distils the wisdom" of hundreds of thousands of court judgments and setting out the prescribed punishments will let people know upfront the consequences of non-compliance.

Ms Sharanjit Kaur, a partner at Withers KhattarWong, said some parties may take orders and judgments in family disputes lightly, and taking out proceedings to enforce those orders can be a time- consuming, stressful and sometimes expensive process.

She cited an example of a woman who was ordered to sell the matrimonial home in six months. The woman, who remarried and continued to live in the property with her second husband, made things difficult for her former husband, who was taking steps to sell the property. Three years after the order was made, the property has yet to be sold.

Lawyers said the courts are generally cautious when it comes to punishing parties for contempt in matrimonial disputes. Mr Singh noted that in some cases, access orders are breached as the children themselves do not want to see their parents. "The courts will still take everything into consideration before they send a person off to jail."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Those in matrimonial spats 'may take court orders more seriously''. Print Edition | Subscribe