Women's Charter amendments strengthen enforcement of child access orders

The amendments also make provisions to better support couples who are undergoing a divorce, and their children. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The courts will now have powers to better enforce child access orders, particularly in cases where parents with care and control of children deny their former spouses access to the children.

New amendments to the Women's Charter passed in Parliament on Monday (Jan 10) include a raft of measures such as mandatory counselling, compensation for denied access and in extreme cases, a jail term and fine for parents who deny child access to the former spouse.

The amendments also include educating couples on parenting, mediation, therapeutic programmes or family support programmes.

Harsher measures include compensation expenses, for instance, if a parent paid for holiday accommodation or travel fare for their children but was deprived of child access by their former spouse, as well as arranging for additional access if the former spouse was denied access to the child.

Also included are performance bonds and security pledges, and in certain cases, fines or imprisonment.

In her opening speech at the second reading of the Bill in Parliament on Monday, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling noted that it could be a difficult and time-consuming process for parents who do not have care and control of their children to seek recourse in cases where there is a breach of the child access order.

"Currently, where there is non-compliance with a child access order, the only recourse for the access parent is to commence committal proceedings or apply for care and control orders pertaining to the children to be varied," Ms Sun said.

The issue has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, when movement between households posed a risk of infection transmission.

A report by The Straits Times in April 2020 found that former spouses were facing more difficulties in meeting their children and fulfilling their maintenance order commitments during this period.

Ms Sun said: "We understand that there are divorced parents who struggle to gain access to their children. We sympathise with this, and trust that these new measures will help to address this.

"Nonetheless, we would like to reiterate that in such issues, it is in the child's best interest for parents to resolve these issues through effective communication and mutual understanding, and legal measures should be a last resort."

In addition to better enforcement of child access orders, the amendments to the Women's Charter also make provisions to better support couples who are undergoing a divorce, and their children.

All divorcing couples with minor children will have to attend the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP) so as to encourage cooperation in parenting matters between the couple.

Currently, only couples who are divorcing under the standard track, where they are contesting the divorce, have to attend the programme.

"The MPP encourages parents to make informed decisions that prioritise the well-being of their children and helps parents understand the importance of co-parenting, and the practical issues arising from a divorce," Ms Sun said.

Children of divorcing parents could also be ordered to attend the Programme for Children if the court deems it beneficial. This covers a range of support for children, including an assessment of the needs of the child, as well as specific interventions, such as group programmes, counselling or psychological services.

The Government will also suggest changes to strengthen the enforcement of maintenance orders in Singapore, under proposed amendments to appropriate legislation this year.

According to Ms Angelina Hing, managing director at Integro Law Chambers, when seen as a part of the suite of amendments under the Women's Charter, the child access enforcement powers given to the court "is to send a message to parents intending to divorce that there are many avenues and assistance given to them to resolve issues amicably".

"But if they choose to contest and adopt an unreasonable stance, there are consequences, and some of these consequences are now made explicit," she added.

"If parents are properly educated and advised, and come to understand that an acrimonious divorce would only cause harm to the child and drain their resources, then hopefully, these parents would make more rationale decisions on all issues, including the ones involving custody, care and control and access."

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