27 January 2022
On 10 January 2022, the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill (“Bill”) was passed in Parliament.
The Bill seeks to amend the Women’s Charter 1961 for the following purposes:
- Enhance the marriage process; and
- Strengthen focus on care for the family and welfare of the children in divorce proceedings (in accordance with therapeutic justice principles).
This article summarises some of the key amendments of the Bill. The Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”) also issued a press release concerning the Bill which is referenced below.
The amendments to the Women’s Charter (“WC amendments”) will allow couples to complete their pre-solemnisation steps online via Registry of Marriages’ (“ROM”) “Our Marriage Journey” IT portal. Video-link solemnisation was first introduced under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 but has now become a permanent option under the WC amendments, enabling couples to marry even under challenging circumstances.
The MSF press release stresses the importance of reducing acrimony when a divorce is pursued. The WC amendments aim to strengthen therapeutic justice elements in the divorce process and enhance support for those undergoing divorce as well as consider the best interest of any children.
New ground for divorce introduced
The Bill seeks to amend the Women’s Charter to introduce divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage (“DMA”) as a sixth fact of divorce. If opting to cite DMA as a reason for divorce, couples must mutually agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably and must submit the following to the court:
- The reasons leading parties to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably broken down;
- The efforts made to reconcile; and
- Considerations given to the arrangements to be made in relation to the parties’ children and financial affairs.
Parties must be acting voluntarily, have the requisite knowledge of the terms and intend to enter into the agreement. If the court finds the required submissions insufficient or believes there is a possibility of reconciliation, it may order further mediation, counselling, or family support programmes. The court must also reject any agreement if it considers that reconciliation is reasonably possible. This is a party-centric test, assessed based on the circumstances of each individual case and allowing a couple to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage.
The current safeguards of the divorce regime will continue to apply meaning that there must be a three-year minimum period of marriage before divorce can be filed and a minimum three-month period before divorce is finalised. The existing five facts of divorce (desertion, adultery, unreasonable behaviour, and separation of three years with consent and four years without consent) continue to be available for parties who prefer to rely on them.
The Mandatory Parenting Programme (“MPP”) will be extended to parents with minor children on the simplified consensual divorce track, so as to encourage co-operative co-parenting post-divorce in the interest of their children. The MPP will also be enhanced to include information on where to seek timely support.
New court powers
The Bill also seeks to empower the court to advise key related persons (e.g. grandparents) to participate in family support programmes that will benefit the children. The court may also advise parents to secure their child’s attendance at the Programme for Children at any stage of the proceedings or even after the final judgement has been granted. The Programme for Children is a broad term that covers a range of possible support for children. The court can take non-compliance into consideration in making custody, care and control, and access orders, among other relevant factors in determining the welfare of the child.
A range of measures have also been introduced to enhance enforcement of child access orders which empower the court to order:
- The care and control parent to compensate the access parent for expenses incurred as a result of the breach of the order;
- The care and control parent to provide additional child access to the access parent to make up for the access denied;
- Both parents and the child, or any of them, to attend counselling, mediation, therapeutic or educational programmes, or family support programmes;
- The care and control parent to enter into a performance bond to ensure future compliance with the order; and
- As a last resort, imprisonment or fine for the care and control parent.