More efforts to deal with maintenance defaulters

SINGAPORE – Men who fail to provide for their families could find it harder to dodge maintenance payments under plans by the authorities to strengthen the enforcement regime.

It is the latest effort to tackle the perennial problem of men who fail to support their children, former wives or even current wives, who can claim maintenance.

The Family Justice Courts (FJC) is “working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development to strengthen the maintenance enforcement regime, including facilitating the service of summonses”, said Presiding Judge Debbie Ong in the FJC Workplan 2021 released last month.

While no other details were provided, family lawyers welcomed the move, saying some women had been struggling to get their maintenance payments for years.

While some men default on their maintenance payments because of financial difficulties, others refuse to pay for various reasons, such as to make life difficult for their former wives, the lawyers said.

Mrs Laura Hwang, spokesman for the Maintenance Support Central Committee, said: “Default of maintenance is a social problem affecting the quality of life and livelihood of families.”

Maintenance Support Central, a centre which provides help to those facing problems getting maintenance, is run by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO).

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar said the enforcement procedure can be a cumbersome one, where the applicant may have to attend court on several occasions before an enforcement order is given.

The summons has to be served before the court can proceed with a trial. But some men go into hiding and so the summons cannot be served on them in person, said lawyer Dorothy Tan.

Hence, it is important that the authorities look into facilitating the serving of summonses to make the process easier, she added.

While the number of applications for the enforcement of maintenance orders fell from 2,290 in 2019 to 1,650 last year, this does not mean fewer women are struggling to get their payments, lawyers noted.

They said the pandemic has made things worse, with many workers suffering job losses and pay cuts.

Lawyer Malathi Das said one reason fewer women filed for an enforcement order is that they know the man is facing financial difficulties and they thus agreed to a temporary reduction in the maintenance sum or to explore payment by instalments.

Lawyer June Lim said some women know that if they file for an enforcement order after the man has lost his job or has had a pay cut, he may file an application to reduce the sum or suspend giving the maintenance until he finds a job.

So, instead of “wasting time and money going through the court system”, she said, some couples agree on a change in the sum given themselves.

Also, Maintenance Support Central halted its maintenance applications operations last March and April during the pandemic. Mrs Hwang said this could have led to a drop in the number of enforcement applications last year.

Lawyer Ivan Cheong said some women may be too worn out by their recalcitrant former husbands’ behaviour. “They will need to take time off work to attend court, present some evidence of non-payment, only to have the cycle repeated a few months later.”

In 2011, the Women’s Charter was amended to allow the courts to impose new sanctions beyond fines and imprisonment.

These include the court directing an employer to pay the maintenance from the defaulter’s wages to the person owed it.

Complainants can also get a credit bureau to list the debt in a defaulter’s credit report, which can be accessed by banks and financial institutions. This makes it tougher for a defaulter to take out loans, among other things.

To strengthen the maintenance enforcement regime, lawyers suggested simplifying the process and increasing the number of remedies that the courts could use to deal with defaulters.

Esther (not her real name) put up with her former husband, who refused to pay the $1,200-a-month maintenance for their three daughters, aged between eight and 15, for more than a year.

The final straw came when she saw from his credit card bills sent to her house that he had bought luxury items such as branded watches and a $5,000 Chanel bag.

Esther, a 45-year-old bank officer, who had divorced the financial adviser after discovering he was cheating on her, said: “He gave excuses that he has no money due to Covid. But if he has no money, how does he chalk up such large credit card bills?”

Esther went to the SCWO for help last October and applied for an enforcement order. Through a mediation session in court, they agreed that he would give her $600 a month – half the maintenance sum. He has to pay the other half at a later date.

Esther said he started to pay the maintenance after she filed for the enforcement order.