26 July 2018

On 18 May 2018, the Vulnerable Adults Bill (“Bill”) was passed in Parliament.

The Bill will allow government social services to intervene, assist and protect vulnerable adults (“VAs”) when social work-based family and community interventions are inadequate. It will complement other existing laws that protect vulnerable individuals, such as the Mental Capacity Act and the Women’s Charter. The provisions in the Bill have not come into force.

In his Opening Speech during the second reading of the Bill, the Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Desmond Lee, highlighted the main features of the Bill as summarised below.

Scope of the Bill and guiding principles underlying intervention

VAs refer to individuals who are 18 years of age or older who, because of mental or physical infirmity, disability or incapacity, are incapable of protecting themselves from abuse, neglect or self-neglect. The Bill sets out five key principles that guide how a duty should be performed or a power exercised under the Bill:

  • the duty is being performed or the power is being exercised for the purpose of protecting the VA from abuse, neglect and self-neglect; 
  • a VA, where not lacking mental capacity, is generally best placed to decide how he or she wishes to live and whether or not to accept any assistance; 
  • if a VA lacks mental capacity, the VA’s views (whether past or present), wishes, feelings, values and beliefs, where reasonably ascertainable, must be considered; 
  • regard must be had to whether the purpose for which the duty is being performed or the power is being exercised can be achieved in a way that is less restrictive of the VA’s rights and freedom of action; and 
  • the welfare and best interests of the VA must be the first and paramount consideration.

State intervention to protect VAs

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”) will be empowered to enter private premises to assess an individual if there is reason to believe that the individual has suffered, is suffering, or is at risk of, abuse, neglect or self-neglect. In severe cases, MSF may remove VAs from their residence and commit them to gazetted care facilities, or to the care of a fit person. Care facilities will be required to undertake securities measures to ensure VAs’ safety and protection. MSF will be empowered to establish a Review Board to ensure that proper care plans are in place for the VA.

In exceptional cases, to ensure a VA’s safety, MSF may apply for a court order to assess and commit a VA to a care facility even if a VA with mental capacity refuses to consent.

To deter people from harming VAs, the Penal Code and Protection from Harassment Act will be amended to enhance the maximum penalties of specific offences by up to one and a half times, if these acts are committed against a VA. The Women’s Charter will also be amended to enhance the penalties for breaches of Women’s Charter protection orders to maintain parity with the Bill.

Court orders to protect VAs

The Family Justice Courts will be empowered to make intervention orders to protect VAs from further harm. When considering whether to make orders and what orders to make, the court must have regard to the five guiding principles mentioned above and may also take into consideration any other relevant matters it deems fit. There are three categories of court orders:

  • core protection orders protecting the VA from any third party who may cause him to suffer from abuse or neglect, such as restraining orders, exclusive occupation orders and orders prohibiting a person from visiting or communicating with the VA; 
  • alternative placement and supervision orders to ensure that the VA is relocated to a safe environment; and 
  • other protection and intervention orders including orders to make the VA’s residence a safe living environment.

To address instances where VAs have difficulties applying for court orders on their own, the Bill empowers approved welfare officers to apply for core protection orders. Family members are also empowered to apply for protection orders.

Community involvement in protecting VAs

To encourage persons to provide information to the authorities about alleged abuse, neglect or self-neglect of VAs, protection will be afforded to those who report such information to the authorities. These whistle-blowers will be protected from civil and criminal liability, so long as they had acted with reasonable care and in good faith. They will also not be regarded to have breached any professional etiquette or ethics. This will protect professionals such as doctors, lawyers and counsellors.

The Bill also places restrictions on the publication of information identifying a VA. However, confidential information relating to a VA may be disclosed to MSF, and by MSF to any other government agency, statutory body, police officer or prescribed person or body. This will allow swift action to be taken to protect VAs, perpetrators to be held accountable, and proper assistance to be given to their families.

Reference materials

The following materials are available on the Parliament website www.parliament.gov.sg and the MSF website www.msf.gov.sg:

 

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