Lawyers see spike in family law cases last year from Covid-19 fallout

Conditions created by Covid-19 exacerbate family tensions.
Conditions created by Covid-19 exacerbate family tensions.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Senior family lawyers reviewing their 2020 caseloads saw a rise in divorce applications, maintenance payment issues and personal protection cases against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic year.

Other noticeable family law concerns included access to children, and cross-border-related issues that arose from domestic and international Covid-19 restrictions.

"While we do not yet have the exact figures from the Department of Statistics Singapore, it would not be surprising if the number of divorce cases increased last year," said family law lecturer Tricia Ho Wei Jing from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

"Conditions created by Covid-19 exacerbate family tensions, especially with the circuit breaker period confining the family unit in the same space for weeks," she said.

"In families that already have an undercurrent of conflict, the higher degree of interaction inevitably results in more arguments and disagreements at home.

"Both spouses being at home for a prolonged period also creates more opportunities to discover certain undesirable conduct such as adultery or improper association that may lead to divorce."

Veteran family lawyer Rajan Chettiar said: "Last year also gave affected couples a lot of time to think through their marital problems and file for divorce. I noted an increase of uncontested divorces I handled last year. I believe this was because couples had time to discuss and reach agreements on their divorce with their spouses."

He said the circuit breaker and work-from-home arrangements increased the tension between the parties, resulting in an increase in family violence cases, and accelerated marital disputes.

"I recall vividly a lady who called me during the circuit breaker. She was traumatised by her husband's conduct towards her at home. She felt helpless and had nowhere to go to seek refuge," he said.

In 2019, 7,623 couples divorced or annulled their marriages.

This was about 4 per cent higher than the 7,344 couples who split in 2018, and the highest number of cases in at least 20 years.

Family lawyer Shone Aye Cheng said that while she saw a general rise in divorce cases filed, a dominant feature was applications by former spouses to vary maintenance payments because of reduced income as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.

She cited how one of her clients, a Grab driver, had applied for and obtained a temporary reduction in maintenance payments to his former wife and their three young children, from $1,300 to $960.

His income had been affected during the circuit breaker, and he faced additional expenses as he had to rent a room in Singapore after moving back from Johor, where he had been living.

The court reduced the maintenance payments for a six-month period to give him breathing space, Mrs Shone said.

Hoh Law Corp's director and head of family law department Margaret Yeow said she received more inquiries from spouses who discovered their partner's infidelity, "as it was simply too contrived to be away from their homes for too long given the (circuit breaker) restrictions".

"Consequently, there were also some who had altercations within the confines of the family home that rendered the presence of the other spouse intolerable. Recently, there was a rise in personal protection applications that involved family members," she said.

Ms Yeow added that during the circuit breaker period, some clients called her twice to thrice daily in addition to sending e-mails, just to complain about former spouses being "a constant headache" in demanding access to their children.

She quipped that her daughter, who was then doing home-based learning, picked up terms such as "mediation", "access" and "affidavits" due to the many calls she fielded while working from home.

Mr Rajan said that "overall, the circuit breaker and the work-from home arrangements created positive and negative impact for couples in distress".

"In 2021, I believe the trends started in 2020 will continue as we are still in the pandemic stage."

He also expects splits in some expat families working here.

"There will be a rise in relocation applications as trailing spouses may wish to return home with their children, as their husbands may have either lost their jobs or are unable to maintain the families in the same standard they used to.

"Like in 2020, 2021 will also see many arranging their personal matters by signing Lasting Powers of Attorney and making wills. A crisis like this pandemic does heighten concerns and give us an impetus to make arrangements for our families and loved ones," he said.