The COVID-19 Pandemic: 6 Issues International Families May Face

mom and son wearing mask and hand sanitizer

The whole world is watching Singapore’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The Singapore Government is being praised internationally for its handling of the situation so far. However, the number of infections is creeping up and the social restrictions are tightening.

As of Tuesday 7 April, the Singapore Government has implemented circuit breaker measures to significantly reduce movement of people to contain the spread of the virus.

Around the world, the situation is evolving day by day and it is not yet possible to predict what is going to happen next. Many countries across the world are now more or less in total lockdown. We do not yet know how long the lockdown will last for, or what the eventual effects on the economy and employment will be.

Lockdowns, travel bans and school closures are causing difficulties in many different areas of life for families all over the world.

For international families, there is an additional layer of complexity.

From the narrow perspective of an English lawyer practising family law in Singapore, here are 6 issues that international families may face:

1) International Contact Not Viable due to COVID-19

Where the parents of children live in different countries, it is currently not viable either for the parents or the children to travel freely and safely internationally.

I feel immense sympathy for those parents who have to cancel imminent plans to see their children.

In these extraordinary and stressful times, I urge parents to set aside any historical personal conflict and focus fully on their children’s needs. Extensive and creative use should be made of video calling to keep the children feeling emotionally connected to both parents.

If the “left-behind” parent has missed out on significant holiday time with the children, try to create goodwill and agree that lost time can be made up when travel restrictions are lifted.

2) Moving Children Across International Borders 

Please be aware that removing children from their country of habitual residence without the express consent of the other parent amounts to child abduction and may be a criminal offence in some countries. In these circumstances, children can be hauled back by the operation of the Hague Convention.

Even in the context of the pandemic, if you are planning to move your children to another country it is important that rash decisions are not made.

The travel bans and lockdowns cannot last forever and accordingly, parents cannot avoid the legal consequences of removing their children without consent.

However, depending on how long the travel restrictions remain in place, I anticipate future disputes about whether the children have become settled in the other country and that their habitual residence has changed.

I anticipate that where consent to relocate might once have been given by the other parent, that same individual will now be fearful of being separated from their children indefinitely.

In normal circumstances, failing to return a child to their country of habitual residence (after an agreed holiday) also amounts to a criminal offence. But in the context of the worldwide restrictions on travel, it may well be the case that children get stuck in the other country through no fault of anyone involved.

3) Domestic Shared Care Arrangements of Children 

In the UK it is no longer permitted for a person to be outside their home for any purpose other than essential shopping, daily exercise, medical need or attending essential work. There is one further exemption which relates to children who live across two households:

“Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”

In Singapore, the public have now been advised to stay at home and avoid going out, except for purchasing necessities, essential services, urgent medical needs or daily exercise. Social contact and interactions between different households are also discouraged.

Whilst no official guidance has been released on the movement of children between two households as it related to separated or divorced parents, the Family Justice Courts have advised the following:

Parents should communicate with each other, or through their lawyers (if any), regarding existing orders relating to access. They should work together to find practical and suitable solutions to access issues, and any other child-related issues that arise, bearing in mind the best interests of their children, and the need to comply with the measures put in place by the Government.” 

4) Financial Issues in the Event of Divorce During COVID-19

The likely overall effects of the pandemic on the economy and employment are not yet known but it is highly likely that many jobs will either be scaled back or lost.

If a separated couple has already concluded a divorce and financial settlement the following issues are likely to arise:

  • If the husband loses his job what happens to his obligations to pay maintenance to his ex-wife and for his children?
  • How can the primary carer meet the needs of the children if the husband is unable to make maintenance payments?
  • To what extent should capital be used to meet family needs? Whose capital should be used and in what proportion?
  • How can school fees be afforded?
  • What is the status of any agreement that has been reached but not yet turned into a binding court order? Can an agreement which was concluded in more stable times be re-opened so that capital can be re-allocated according to need?
  • Can a court order be varied, and if so how?
  • Have the assets values of one party or the other been decimated by the volatility of the market? If so, can an existing agreement or order be set aside or varied on that basis?

If a couple is in the process of divorcing and settling financial matters between them:

  • How can assets be valued and fairly shared in an unprecedented moment of crisis?
  • Should the wife capitalise her maintenance payments where the husband’s job might be at risk? Is it wise for the husband to agree to do so?
  • Should the parties agree to the terms of a settlement now and try to share risk and volatility or should they pause all financial discussions indefinitely? If so, for how long? What should the interim holding position be? Can the other person be forced to suspend taking any further action?
  • If the agreement cannot be negotiated – how can the matter be resolved? Are the courts still functioning? What other options are there?

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5) Acquiring Visas in the Event of a Job Loss

If the husband or wife loses his or her job, their Employment Pass (EP) will be cancelled and a 30-day Short Term Visit Pass (STVP) will be issued. All related passes tied to the main pass such as the spouse’s and/or children’s Dependant’s Passes will also be cancelled and they will be issued with an STVP that is valid for 30 days.

In normal circumstances, most people who have had their EP cancelled will spend their remaining 30 days in Singapore completing any formalities, making arrangements to move back to the UK or whichever country their next destination is, or choose to continue to work and live in Singapore and apply for jobs during this period. If alternative arrangements cannot be made, the family must leave Singapore.

Due to the worldwide travel restrictions, careful advice must be taken about what action can be taken in the event of job loss.

If either parent is an overseas foreign professional with a last drawn fixed monthly salary of at least S$18k or be an EP holder earning a fixed monthly salary of at least S$12k, you can make an application for a Personalised Employment Pass (PEP). More information can be found on this webpage of the Ministry of Manpower website.

With regards to the latest travel advice and information in Singapore, you can refer to the Ministry of Manpower’s website for updates.

6) Domestic Abuse

As families are being placed in quarantine together for extended periods of time, there are reports of escalating conflict.

Around the world, countries like the UK, Italy, China, Brazil and Germany have reported a rise in domestic abuse due to strict lockdown measures.

Domestic abuse covers more than just physical violence and threats. It might also include sexual violence, emotional or other psychological abuse, harassment or controlling behaviour (including financial and indirect controlling behaviour).

Some types of violence are physical and may include:

  • Assault
  • Rape
  • Damaging property

Some types of abuse are not physical, such as:

  • Threats
  • Criticism
  • Harassment
  • Controlling behaviour, such as:
    • Isolating someone from sources of support
    • Reducing their independence
    • Exploiting them
  • Coercive behaviour, such as trying to harm, punish or frighten someone by use of:
    • Violence
    • Threats
    • Humiliation
    • Intimidation

In Singapore, whilst a lockdown has not yet been ordered by the Government, the implementation of work from home measures, home-based learning once a week for children, restrictions on social activities and people increasingly choosing to stay at home – means that victims of domestic abuse in Singapore have less respite from their abuser for longer periods of time.

Fears about the virus and stress about financial security, job stability and an uncertain future might also heighten tensions at home which could lead to an escalation of abuse in the family.

Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Women’s Helpline has reported a 33% increase in February over calls received in the same month last year, as a result of the social distancing and isolation measure in place.

If you are in Singapore and you are experiencing domestic violence in the current situation, you have options to protect yourself and/or your children:

  1. In the event of serious violence your first point of call should be to call the Police;
  2. Seek shelter with friends or family or in the alternative, seek refuge at a women’s shelter:
  3. Seek legal protection: Apply for a Personal Protection Order
  4. Connect with a Singapore family lawyer to seek further legal advice
  5. If you are unable to access funds to consult a lawyer, the following organisations that offer legal clinics where you can get preliminary legal advice:

Fleeing domestic violence is usually the first step on the path which eventually leads to a divorce. Although domestic violence issues must be handled locally in the local courts by local lawyers, for expats there might be the option of using the courts of your home country to deal with the divorce itself (and the financial matters arising).

If any of the international family law issues raised in this article affect you, please contact Sonny Patel for a free confidential discussion by telephone or by Zoom.