Court in divorce proceedings has no power to decide property claims by third parties

Under the Women's Charter, a family justice court only has power to divide assets in the specific context of matrimonial proceedings involving the two spouses.
Under the Women's Charter, a family justice court only has power to divide assets in the specific context of matrimonial proceedings involving the two spouses.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - The Republic's highest court has ruled that a family justice court does not have the power to hear or determine claims made by a third party on property involved in divorce proceedings.

The ruling comes in a landmark judgment on Wednesday (April 25) by a five-judge Court of Appeal.

The matter centres on a dispute over the ownership of a divorcing couple's matrimonial home. The wife's mother claims the property, which is now valued at more than $5 million, belongs to her.

But the apex court ruled that under the Women's Charter - the law that provides for marriage and divorce - a family justice court only has power to divide assets in the specific context of matrimonial proceedings involving the two spouses.

A separate civil suit has to be started to determine the ownership of the disputed property before proceedings to divide matrimonial assets can continue before a family justice court.

The Court of Appeal recognised that there have been past cases in which judges dealing with the division of matrimonial assets have determined the ownership of assets claimed by third parties.

These cases were "wrongly decided", said the court.

The decision arose out of a long-running case that started in 2008 when the husband, a foreigner in his 50s, filed for divorce from his Singaporean wife, who is in her 40s.

In July 2015, the wife's mother applied to intervene in the divorce proceedings.

She wanted to dispute the husband's claim that a house that was in her name can be counted as a matrimonial asset as she was holding it on trust for the couple.

When the court allowed the husband to cross-examine the wife and her mother, the two women were dissatisfied and appealed.

On hearing the appeal, then Judicial Commissioner Debbie Ong questioned whether a court, in proceedings to divide matrimonial assets, had the jurisdiction and power to determine the property rights of a third party.

The wife and her mother argued that the same court can deal with the property dispute and the division of assets. The husband argued that a separate suit had to be filed.

The judge ruled that the matrimonial proceedings should be stayed to allow the husband to pursue a civil action to determine the ownership of the disputed property.

The wife's mother appealed. In February, the Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal, upholding the lower court's decision.

The court's detailed grounds, penned by Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash, was released on Wednesday. The court also comprised Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang, Tay Yong Kwang and Steven Chong.

The court acknowledged arguments by the wife's mother that it will save time and costs to deal with the issue in the same set of proceedings, but emphasised that the jurisdiction of the court is governed by legislation.

"We cannot arrogate jurisdiction to ourselves where the legislature has not conferred it," said the court.

The judgment also set out the options available when a third party wants to stake a claim to a disputed asset in divorce proceedings.

The husband, who is represented by Mr Salem Ibrahim and Ms Kulvinder Kaur, has since filed a civil suit, seeking a declaration that the property is a matrimonial asset.

Among other things, he contends he paid a "very substantial" portion of the purchase price of the house, which was bought in 2003.