Proposed changes to Women's Charter pave the way for couples to divorce amicably

Singapore law currently states one ground for divorce under which parties have to prove one of five facts. PHOTO: COTTONBRO/PEXELS

SINGAPORE - Newly proposed amendments to the Women's Charter could allow couples in Singapore to divorce amicably without pinning blame on one party.

The changes, which were introduced in Parliament on Monday (Nov 1), would introduce a sixth fact for divorce termed "divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage" (DMA), which enables couples to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage.

Singapore law currently states one ground for divorce - the irretrievable breakdown of marriage - under which parties have to prove one of five facts.

Under the new fact, couples who are seeking divorce will have to include reasons for the marital breakdown, steps they have taken to reconcile, and also the considerations they have made for their children and financial affairs in their submissions to the court.

Examples of steps taken to reconcile include attending marital counselling or seeking the help of friends or family members to settle disputes.

The court may then order the parties to attend further mediation, counselling, or programmes such as those for parenting. It can also reject the couple's agreement if there is a possibility of reconciliation.

During a media briefing on the amendments, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said the Bill was a step towards reducing conflict between divorcing couples, who often have to dredge up previous conflicts during the legal process.

"Our starting point to introduce a sixth fact for divorce is to reduce acrimony in the divorce process... The reason why we say that this helps to reduce acrimony in the process is because the couple would have thought through whether or not the marriage is able to continue, and where they see that there is already an irreconcilable breakdown of the marriage, they may feel that both parties need to take joint responsibility for the marriage breakdown," she said.

Under the Women's Charter, which covers non-Muslim divorces, there are three fault-based facts for divorce: 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 ground for divorce and the five facts were introduced in 1980, when the Women's Charter was amended.

In May this year, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) sought public feedback on the concept of amicable divorce.

MSF said it had received strong feedback from divorcees that citing one of the fault-based facts like desertion or adultery can cause parties to blame each other.

"Citing one of the separation facts causes them to have to put their lives on hold for the next three to four years, which can be detrimental to the emotional well-being of the children as well as the parties," MSF added.

With the proposed DMA option, current safeguards will remain. For instance, couples have to be married for at least three years before they can file for divorce. There will also continue to be a three-month period before the divorce is finalised.

"The existence of these safeguards will ensure that there is sufficient time for the couple to continue to work hard to make the marriage work before proceeding to divorce," Ms Sun said.

The five current facts for divorce will also remain for couples who prefer to cite them.

The new proposed fact comes at a time when a larger proportion of couples, especially among those who wed more recently, are splitting up.

According to MSF data on marriage dissolution trends among Singaporeans and permanent residents, 16 per cent of couples who wed in 2006 ended their marriages before their 10th wedding anniversary - almost double the 8.7 per cent who wed in 1987 and divorced within 10 years.

Noting the need to address evolving issues for families here, Ms Sun said: "As our society evolves and families navigate new challenges, it is our shared responsibility to review the Women's Charter and propose how we can keep it relevant and adapt it to improve the lived experience of Singaporeans - men, women and children alike.

"We have a shared vision for a Singapore that is made for families. Let us continue the various pathways of this journey together, to make this vision a reality."

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