S'pore considers allowing couples to divorce without citing fault to lessen pain, especially for children

If such an option becomes law, it would mark a significant move to make the divorce process less acrimonious.
If such an option becomes law, it would mark a significant move to make the divorce process less acrimonious.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Government is considering introducing an option that allows couples to divorce without citing a fault such as unreasonable behaviour or adultery and pinning blame on the other party for the marital breakdown.

If such an option, termed as "amicable divorce" by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), becomes law, it would mark a significant move to make the divorce process less acrimonious, and would have other benefits, family lawyers said.

From Sunday (May 2), the MSF is seeking public feedback on the concept of "amicable divorce". In this proposed model, couples mutually consent to the divorce and do not have to cite any of the five facts that currently prove the grounds for an "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage".

Under the Women's Charter, which cover non-Muslim divorces, there are three fault based facts: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, or desertion.

In addition, there are two facts of separation: separation of three years with the spouse's consent and four years' separation without consent.

The grounds for divorce and the five facts were introduced in 1980, when the Women's Charter was amended, an MSF spokesman said.

Under the new "amicable divorce" model, the couple could jointly file for divorce without the need for one to be the plaintiff and the other the defendant, which sets them up in an adversarial relationship, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling.

Ms Sun said the MSF has been engaging divorced parents and social service professionals working with divorcees in the past six months to understand how to better support those going through a divorce.

She said some of the feedback was that need to cite fault in the divorce papers can cause couples to revisit the pain and acrimony, which can lead to further rifts.

"At the end of the day, we hope to make the divorce process less painful for couples who have decided to embark on divorce despite their best intentions to save the marriage," said Ms Sun.

"At the same time, the MSF is looking also at pre-divorce support, where we can best strengthen families and provide counselling services. We will try our very best to save marriages, as best we can."

With the proposed option, current safeguards will remain. For instance, couples have to be married for at least three years before they can file for divorce.

The aim is to reduce the acrimony in the divorce process, and not to make divorce "easier", said the public consultation paper on the matter.

The five current facts for divorce will also remain for couples who prefer to cite them. And couples can still file as plaintiff or defendant.

The new "amicable divorce" option comes at a time when a larger proportion of couples, especially among those who wed more recently, are splitting up.

For example, among couples who wed in 2006, 16 per cent ended their marriages before their 10th wedding anniversary - almost double the 8.7 per cent who wed in 1987. This is from MSF data on marriage dissolution trends among Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Lawyer Ivan Cheong said of the "amicable divorce" option: "It is very significant as this marks a transition to a truly 'no fault' basis divorce.

"This reduces the animosity and tension that would arise as it no longer assigns fault to the other party or results in a 'loss of face' that would be keenly felt from an Asian perspective if a party is required to admit that he or she was the cause of the (marital) breakdown."

Fei Yue Community Services deputy executive director Arthur Ling said a more amicable split is important to help parents to cooperate in their parenting roles post-divorce.

Mr Ling said: "Some people think if we make it so easy (for couples to divorce), will it mean that we are minimising the value of marriage? My response to this is: Nobody gets married to be divorced.

"It's not about minimising the value of marriage. Rather in a divorce where the children are in pain, how can we make the process (more) amicable?"

The MSF is also seeking views on whether to make programmes and services that help the child cope with the divorce compulsory, as parents asked for more support in this area.

For example, there is the Children In Between programme, which helps both the parent and the child cope better with the impact of the divorce.

Some attend this programme voluntarily, while others are sent by the courts. But fewer than 200 children attend this programme each year, which is a fraction of the number who are affected by divorce. In 2019, there were about 6,700 children under the age of 21 whose parents divorced.

The MSF spokesman said the take-up rates of this programme could be low for various reasons, like parents not being aware of the divorce's impact on their children.

The MSF spokesman said the current proposals are "exploratory" and the ministry will consider the feedback given from the public consultation exercise and "conduct further engagements with stakeholders before making legislative amendments".

The public consultation exercise is published on MSF's website. The public can e-mail their views to PublicFeedback@msf.gov.sg by June 3.