As of 7 April 2020, the Singapore government put in place circuit breaker measures to reduce local transmission of COVID-19. Following the circuit breaker measures, the Family Justice Courts (FJC) have released new measures on the current state of proceedings in the divorce courts.
However, the current measures taken by the FJC may pose some potential roadblocks for divorced couples and couples who are in the process of divorcing, or thinking of divorcing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This article will discuss some of these potential roadblocks and the possible solutions.
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1) Temporary Suspension in the Hearing of Court Cases Due to COVID-19
The hearing of court cases in the FJC has been impacted by the COVID-19 situation. Most court hearings have been adjourned (i.e. temporarily suspended) unless the matter is deemed to be urgent and essential.
Urgent and essential matters include matters that are time-sensitive, constitute a threat to life and liberty and/or involve urgent needs of the family.
For instance, this could include divorce cases where there is imminent danger of family violence at home or pressing financial needs in the case of maintenance applications. The FJC would also view child abduction by one parent as an urgent matter.
Whether the matter is urgent and essential would be determined by the courts. If the courts are of the view that your case is urgent and essential, they will use electronic means of communication, such as video conferencing through software like Zoom to conduct hearings.
On the other hand, the court is also automatically extending the duration of certain court orders without parties needing to go to court to apply for an extension during the circuit breaker period.
For example, Expedited Orders (EOs) for family violence victims which had been due to expire during the circuit breaker period will be extended automatically for another 28 days.
2) Limitations to Carrying Out Divorce Ancillary Orders During the COVID-19 Outbreak
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused many changes to our lifestyles, but it has also resulted in economic impacts such as job losses and pay cuts. As a result, there may be changes in circumstances that make carrying out divorce ancillary orders more difficult during this time.
Access arrangements are allowed to continue during the circuit breaker period, though parents should try to keep movement within households to the minimum to lower the risk of transmission between different households.
Unfortunately, there may be some issues faced with access arrangements during this circuit breaker period. For instance, some parents may prevent their ex-spouse from seeing their children by using the reason that they are avoiding the risk of transmission between households.
Couples who do not have an access arrangement in place, such as those who are still in the process of divorcing, will have to come to an interim agreement on access for the circuit breaker period. This could be an issue as parties who are unable to come to an agreement may result in a parent being unable to see their children during the circuit breaker period.
In addition, since Divorce Support Specialist Agencies are closed, parents entitled to supervised access at such agencies would not be able to have access to their children.
Lastly, parents who have access arrangements at outdoor locations will also face problems with access during the circuit breaker period.
In such circumstances, a potential solution would be to allow the parent to keep in contact with their children via video call, while following circuit breaker measures such as not visiting people from different households.
The FJC has encouraged parents to practise open communication to find appropriate solutions to these access issues. In coming to workable solutions, parents should consider the best interests of children and compliance with government measures.
As a last resort, if parents are unable to come to an agreement, the parents can write in jointly to the courts with their views or apply for a variation or suspension of access orders.
However, it is noted that it will be up to the courts to decide whether applications for access orders are urgent and essential, so applying to vary or suspend access orders should only be done as a last resort.
Paying of spousal and child maintenance
As a result of job losses and pay cuts, some parents may be struggling to meet their maintenance obligations.
The FJC has advised parents who are having issues in paying either spousal maintenance or child maintenance to explain their situation to the other parent as soon as possible and attempt to agree on any changes in maintenance payments, if necessary.
If an agreement is reached, it should be recorded in writing to avoid any disputes in future.
However, if no agreement is reached, the parent who has not received maintenance can apply to the FJC for legal recourse.
The FJC will continue to hear applications where they are satisfied that an urgent hearing is necessary due to immediate financial needs of the applicant and his/her children.
3) COVID-19 Restrictions on Holding of In-Person Lawyer-Client Meetings
Since face-to-face meetings are no longer possible, meetings with clients have shifted online. One easy way for clients to get in touch with their lawyers is via Zoom.
Thus, despite the circuit breaker measures that are in force, couples who are currently involved in divorce proceedings and/or couples who are thinking of getting a divorce would be able to obtain the legal advice that they need.
In these challenging times, divorced couples and couples who are considering divorce should cooperate with each other as much as possible before seeking court recourse. The stress from the pandemic already takes a toll on all of us, so it is even more important to practise open communication and have empathy for each other.
Where disagreements persist, parties should turn to a non-adversarial approach, such as online counselling or mediation, to resolve conflicts. The courts should be the last resort in resolving these disagreements.
Written by: Chua Xin Yi, Cindy and Sarah-Mae Thomas of Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC