Indonesian divorcee wins bid to have division of assets heard

Court rejects ex-husband's claims divorce was 'fake' and that Singapore has no jurisdiction

A woman who, after divorcing her abusive husband in Indonesia, went to the Singapore courts to divide their Seaview apartment, has been given the go-ahead by the Court of Appeal to start the proceedings.

Her former husband, who has been convicted of domestic violence charges in Jakarta but has yet to start his jail term, had challenged her move. He argued the case should not be heard in Singapore, claiming she had "faked" the divorce papers.

But the apex court, in a written judgment on Wednesday, found the woman had shown substantial ground for the case to proceed.

It is the first Court of Appeal decision involving provisions introduced to the Women's Charter in 2011, in which a regime is provided for a divorced spouse to get financial relief after obtaining a divorce in a foreign country.

The court held that it was not necessary for an applicant to show that Singapore is the more appropriate forum.

Neither is an applicant required to exhaust all available remedies in the foreign jurisdiction before applying to the Singapore courts.

The couple are Indonesian citizens who married in 1995 and have three children, aged 22, 18 and 10. All are Singapore permanent residents.

In 2012, the wife filed criminal charges against the husband for abusing her and their children.

He was sentenced to 31/2 years' jail and fined 100 million rupiah (S$9,700) in 2013. The jail term was raised to 4½ years on his appeal to the West Jakarta High Court in 2014.

Instead of serving his sentence, he remained in Singapore, contending that he had been convicted on "hoax" charges.

The wife was granted a divorce in 2013 by the West Jakarta District Court, as well as sole custody of the children and an order for child maintenance.

In October 2016, she applied for leave, or permission, to start proceedings in Singapore seeking division of the property she jointly owned with her former husband.

Under the regime, applicants must first obtain leave from the court before they can move to the next stage for the court to hear the substantive application for financial relief.

The woman's leave application was dismissed by a district judge on the ground that she should have applied to the Indonesian courts for financial relief before doing so in Singapore.

She appealed to the High Court, which reversed the district judge's decision.

Her former husband then appealed to the Court of Appeal.

In its judgment dismissing the appeal, the apex court said the woman has met the requirements to be granted leave: There was a valid foreign divorce, the Singapore courts have jurisdiction to grant relief and she has shown "substantial ground" for the application.

The court rejected the former husband's claims that the divorce was "fake" and the Singapore courts have no jurisdiction because he has been "habitually resident" in Singapore for fewer than three years.

As for what constitutes "substantial ground", the court said an applicant only needed to show that, until proven otherwise, it would be appropriate for a Singapore court to grant relief.

The court said the woman has shown this, given the fact that the property is in Singapore and the parties' connections to Singapore as permanent residents.

It also called for changes to the procedure, to allow for leave applications to be heard ex parte, that is, without requiring the other side to be present.

The court observed that the current regime is "less than satisfactory" because it requires the court to hear two rounds of arguments which add to costs and time spent.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2019, with the headline Indonesian divorcee wins bid to have division of assets heard. Subscribe