SINGAPORE - Changes to the Women's Charter to allow couples to divorce without citing faults like adultery will not lead to quick and easy divorces, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling.
Such divorces by mutual agreement, as they are called, mean spouses will not need to pin blame on each other, adding to the tension at home.
However, the new approach will come with safeguards to prevent people from seeking an easy way out of their troubled marriages, she said in Parliament on Monday (Jan 10).
Speaking during the debate on amendments to the Women's Charter, which covers non-Muslim divorces, Ms Sun said those seeking divorce after the new rules come into force will have to, for instance, show that they have made efforts to reconcile.
Also, the court has the power not to grant a divorce if it feels that reconciliation is "reasonably possible", she added.
Ms Sun said the new divorce by mutual agreement approach is unlike the "no-fault" divorces adopted in other countries, where couples are not required to prove that their marriage has broken down irretrievably or one side alone can file for divorce.
This is because in Singapore, a couple have to agree that the marriage has broken down beyond repair and explain to the court the reasons that led to this conclusion. And in doing so, they take responsibility for their marital woes, she said.
"A bare agreement without reasons is not enough," Ms Sun said.
She added that reasons could include deep-seated differences in values, and the aim is to avoid reasons that pin blame on only one party.
Also, one side alone cannot divorce the other by the mutual agreement option.
Besides, a couple must be wed for at least three years before they can file for divorce - this rule is already in place now.
All the other safeguards of the current divorce framework, such as the three-month period before the divorce is finalised, also still stand, Ms Sun said.
Hence, divorce by mutual agreement strikes a balance between the fact that marriage is a "public institution and a serious matter", and that when it has truly broken down, the law should permit divorce without creating unnecessary acrimony, she said.
The amendments to the Women's Charter were passed on Monday (Jan 10) after a four-hour debate, during which 16 MPs spoke.
The divorce by mutual agreement option is expected to come into effect next year.
Ms Sun said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) held consultations with those involved in the divorce process, such as divorcees, lawyers and social workers. This also comes after a review of the family justice system to focus on therapeutic justice, where divorcing couples are not positioned as adversaries in court, but work together to co-parent after the divorce.
"We found that where parties agree on the divorce, having to cite one of the existing facts may force parties to point fingers at each other as they cite reasons to prove one of the three fault-based facts or dredge up past hurts to prove the facts.
"This can cause the child to be caught in the middle as allegations of misdeeds are being made by either or both of their parents against the other."
If they cite separation as a fact, they have to "put their lives on hold" for the three or four years of separation before filing for divorce. This can be "harmful to the couple and their children as the relationship between the couple would likely be tense and unstable during the period of separation", Ms Sun said.
Now, the three fault-based facts for divorce are adultery, desertion and unreasonable behaviour. There are also two facts of separation: three years’ separation with spouse’s consent, or four years without consent.
Hence, divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage is the sixth fact for divorce.
Ms Sun said this new option is not a "simple handshake" of a mutual agreement to divorce as couples have to tell the courts why their marriage broke down irretrievably.
They also need to show what effort they have made to reconcile, and their considerations in post-divorce arrangements involving the children and finances.
The courts can order a couple to go for counselling or mediation, for example, and that could salvage the marriage or confirm that reconciliation is impossible.
The courts could also reject the couple's agreement to end the marriage if it considers that reconciliation is "reasonably possible", she said.
Ms Sun said: "For instance, if cases where previous efforts at reconciliation were few and insufficient and where reasons provided on the breakdown of the marriage appear vague and arbitrary, and where parties do not seem entirely certain of their decision, the court may choose not to accept the agreement."
The amendments to the Women's Charter also included a raft of other changes, including the strengthening of the enforcement measures to get parents to comply with court orders to give the other parent access to their child post-divorce.
These other divorce-related amendments are expected to come into effect in the later half of this year.
Family lawyer Angelina Hing said couples will not opt for divorce just because the process to get one has become easier, but because they no longer want to remain married.
Mr Arthur Ling, chief executive of Fei Yue Community Services, said: "For couples who have tried their best to save their marriage but could not, this option will be able to reduce the acrimony and foster an environment that fosters healing for them and their family."