Men who refuse to pay their former wives maintenance will now face more pressure to do so.
The Sunday Times looks at the roles maintenance record officers empowered by changes to the law might play, as well as stepped-up protection for vulnerable women in crisis situations, and what more needs to be done.
GETTING DEFAULTERS TO PAY UP
The law was last strengthened in 2011, to better enforce maintenance orders by giving the courts the option of imposing more sanctions on defaulters. But the Government recognises that the problem is a hard one to eradicate.
Enter maintenance record officers, introduced in the latest round of changes. These officers can get information on parties' finances. This will help the courts identify recalcitrant defaulters and impose harsher penalties against them.
Since 2011, the number of applications to get former spouses to pay up has fallen slightly, but remains high. In 2011, there were 2,979 such applications. This number fell by about 7 per cent - or 226 cases - to 2,753 last year. The majority of these cases were filed by former wives. The rest include women who are still married and their children.
The defaulters' recalcitrance often stems from deep-seated anger and bitter acrimony, say family lawyers who deal with such cases.
Lawyer Malathi Das, president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, says it is sometimes a tit-for-tat tactic against wives who deny access to the children. "Or it could be that the children don't want to see their fathers, and the men blame the wives for that and refuse to give maintenance," she adds.
Lawyer Tan Siew Kim says: "It's sad that some men think that they are 'teaching their wives a lesson' by deliberately withholding and refusing to pay maintenance."
These men completely ignore the fact that maintenance is for their children - including for their essentials such as school fees, food and medicine - and that their act of "punishing" their wives will affect the lives of their children, she adds.
Some go to great lengths to avoid paying maintenance, with some men quitting their jobs to avoid paying, says Ms Das.
Ms Tan says she has seen men deliberately transfer all their shares in their businesses to their siblings and relatives and downgrade from director to manager, even slashing their declared income from five figures to around $2,000 - to avoid paying adequate maintenance.
The move to appoint maintenance record officers takes aim at these defaulters by reducing the burden of proof of women to show their husbands' or former husbands' finances.
This sends a very strong signal that the authorities are very serious about enforcing maintenance payments, says Ms Das.
It also saves the women agonising trips to the courts every few months to get the men to pay up.
Lawyers suggest that the Government go a step further and allow defaulting men's wages to be taken to pay their maintenance.
For example, a portion of their monthly salary can be mandated to be set aside like Central Provident Fund savings, says lawyer Gloria James-Civetta. Currently, a woman has to wait for her former husband to default on payments.
MORE PROTECTION FOR WOMEN
Separately, Parliament also passed changes that aim to better protect victims of family violence.
Some raised questions about the implementation, such as how to decide that someone is a "fit individual" to care for the victim.
The changes passed include allowing the Ministry of Social and Family Development's director of social welfare to place vulnerable females under 21 in the care of "fit individuals", and allowing married or formerly married people under 21 to apply for personal protection orders (PPOs), instead of requiring others to apply for it on their behalf.
Regarding the first change, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin explained that this was a new community- based care option, in addition to existing options of residential facilities and shelters.
MPs and welfare groups were concerned about the "overly vague, broad and open-ended" powers given to the director to detain a girl against her will.
For instance, one clause in the new law reads: "Where a girl has been detained in a place of safety, or committed to the care of a fit individual, at the request of the girl's lawful guardian, the girl may be detained or committed for such period as the director determines is necessary for the girl's rehabilitation, despite any request made by the girl's lawful guardian for the girl's early release."
Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said in Parliament on Monday: "It is problematic that girls can be detained against their will when they have not committed any criminal offences, and in fact are in vulnerable situations."
Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), says: "It is troubling that our response to girls in vulnerable situations is to provide for their open-ended detention against their will, rather than offering adequate options for support that they can voluntarily access."
In response to Mr Ng, Mr Tan said: "All cases which come to the attention of the director are thoroughly investigated. A girl will be admitted to a place of safety only if the director is satisfied it will be in her best interests."
When Mr Ng asked if the decision to detain is made solely by the director or a team, Mr Tan's reply was: "The director would be advised by the staff and that's the approach we're taking for this."
Mr Ng tells The Sunday Times that he was informed later that the decision will be reviewed every six months by a committee.
PROTECTING VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE
Another change is to allow married or formerly married people under 21 to apply for PPOs for themselves and their children. Previously, a parent or guardian had to apply for this on their behalf.
But experts called for the criteria to apply to be extended further, noting that everyone under 21 should be allowed to apply if they are victims of violence.
Mr Ng and Aware's Ms Tan also want the application criteria to be extended to victims of domestic violence, not just victims of family violence. Ms Tan says: "It should be possible for not just live-in partners, but also tenants or domestic workers, to obtain PPOs against anyone in their household."