Hope for trailing expat spouses in divorce cases

More court orders for Dependant's Pass to be reinstated so spouses can stay here for fair trial

The method of "getting rid" of expatriate spouses by terminating the pass was becoming more common, but there have been more cases where the courts prevented this tactic. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

About a month before Emily (not her real name) was due to appear in court last November for a maintenance trial, she was shocked when she found that her husband had cancelled her Dependant's Pass (DP) in the midst of their separation.

After four years of calling Singapore home, the 51-year-old British mother of one faced a four-week deadline to leave the country and her teenage daughter, who has yet to finish school here.

This method of "getting rid" of expatriate spouses by terminating the pass was becoming more common, but for the past half year or so, there have been more cases where the courts prevented this tactic, said lawyers.

They attribute this change to a growing awareness of the predicament of trailing spouses in divorces or separations. In Emily's case, after a tense two-week wait, the judge ruled that her British husband was to reinstate her pass for two years, she said.

"I want to stay here for my daughter, who still has 18 months back at school," said Emily, who lives with her 17-year-old and is looking for a job here. "My husband travels often, and a child needs her mother."

SIM University senior lecturer Yvonne McNulty said that in her research involving 252 expat spouses going through divorce in Singapore, about 100 either had their DPs cancelled or been threatened with cancellation. The three-year study ended last year.

She added that with a minimum of three years needed to finalise divorce here, the DP holder is at "a clear disadvantage with the law" if he or she loses the pass in the first month of separation.

But she said that the number of reinstated passes remains a "very small number" and more can be done to stop the cancellation of spouses' DPs.

When an expat moves here, his or her company sponsors the Employment Pass.

The employer of the expat - who is typically male - then sponsors his wife and children as dependants on his pass, which he can ask to cancel any time. Divorce cases in Singapore with at least one party of a different nationality rose from 31 per cent of cases filed in 2011 to 40 per cent in 2015.

British permanent resident Catherine Rose Yates, who set up a support group for expats going through separation, said her group has grown from some 250 members in September last year to more than 300 now.

Most members have children, making separation complicated due to care and custody issues, she said. But she has seen at least three cases in the past two or so months where the courts ordered a spouse's DP to be reinstated for the duration of the proceedings, she said, "so the other party can have a fair trial".

Lawyer Yvonne Sweeney, whose expertise includes cross-border divorces, said: "It's been happening more and more in the past six months."

Calling such rulings "a significant move" for access to justice, lawyer Franca Ciambella said: "It also makes it a more level playing field as the working spouse can no longer use (the pass) as extra leverage to force the non-working spouse to accede to their demands."

This will allow the trailing spouse to remain with his or her children as well, and have an option to work here, she added.

Family lawyer Foo Siew Fong said: "The court has always placed the welfare of children as paramount. It is certainly not in the interest and welfare of the children if their mother is forced by circumstances to leave them behind."

Kate (not her real name), a Kazakhstani who managed to enforce a court order to reinstate her DP last month, said this was important as she could represent herself in court proceedings. She has a two-year-old son.

The 26-year-old added: "By cancelling my DP and forcing me to leave Singapore, my ex-husband was trying to separate me and my child (using the system)."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline Hope for trailing expat spouses in divorce cases. Subscribe