Contempt of Court in Divorce: When You Can be Punished
The vast majority of divorce proceedings in Singapore end with orders being granted by the courts that conclusively settle the parties’ affairs from their marriage, including the arrangements for their children after the marriage.
However, some parties may choose to flout these court orders, undermining the finality of the administration of justice in matrimonial disputes. The enforcing of contempt of court laws can potentially be one strong disincentive for parties to flout court orders from divorce proceedings.
What is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court generally refers to conduct that may impede the functionality of the court. The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AJPA) lists four main types of conduct that constitute contempt of court in Singapore. These are:
- Scandalising the court
- Interfering with the administration of justice
- Disobedience of court orders
- Sub judice contempt (or prejudicing/interfering with an ongoing court case)
More information about the specific conduct that can fall within these main categories of contempt, as well as the defences to contempt of court, can be found in our other article.
This article will zero in on contempt of court in the context of disobeying court orders made during a divorce. It will cover:
When Might a Person be Punished for Contempt of Court in a Singapore Divorce?
Section 4(1)(a) of the AJPA states that “any person who intentionally disobeys or breaches any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other process of a court commits a contempt of court”. This includes divorce financial orders that the Family Justice Court (also referred to as “the Court” in this article) can make, including:
- Maintenance orders
- Property orders to sell or transfer properties
- Orders for the division of matrimonial assets, as well as
- Non-financial orders such as custody and access orders.
Accordingly, if either you or your ex-spouse disobeys any such order that the Court may make, the disobeying party may be subject to a finding of contempt of court. For example, for intentionally disobeying a maintenance order, you or your ex-spouse may be fined and/or imprisoned for up to 1 month for each month of maintenance owed, pursuant to section 71 of the Women’s Charter.
For intentionally disobeying access orders granted by the Court, e.g. if the Court granted you the right of access to your child on weekends and on special occasions, but your ex-spouse refuses to let you see your child during those periods, he/she may be fined up to $20,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 12 months.
Apart from the usual court orders that may be made during a divorce, the Court may also make miscellaneous orders that it considers to be in the interests of the welfare of the children of the marriage.
For example, in one reported case, the court had issued an order that prohibited the parents from involving their children in the litigation. The High Court found that the mother had breached that court order by informing her children of material in court proceedings, actively allowing her male colleague to manipulate the children against their father, and polarising them against their father. This was evident in the children’s affidavits drafted by the male colleague, where the allegations in the affidavits resembled the allegations stated in both the colleague and mother’s own affidavits. The mother’s colleague had also moved into the couple’s home a few months after their divorce proceedings began, and lived together with the mother and her two children during the course of court proceedings. The mother was sentenced to 1 week’s jail for contempt of court.
What Can You Do If Your Ex-Spouse has Breached a Court Order?
If you think that your ex-spouse has breached a court order made during the divorce proceedings, you may commence enforcement proceedings by filing a Magistrate’s Complaint in the Family Justice Courts. Alternatively, you may wish to initiate proceedings for contempt of court instead, otherwise known as committal proceedings. To do so, there are two steps to follow:
- You will have to apply to the General Division of the High Court for permission to apply for an order of committal. The High Court will assess whether there is sufficient basis to have the non-compliant person brought to court.
- If the High Court grants permission, you can then apply for an order of committal for contempt of court. After a hearing, the High Court will determine whether the person has indeed committed contempt of court, and impose punishment accordingly.
What are the Penalties for Contempt of Court in Singapore?
Under section 12(1)(b) of the AJPA, where the power to punish for contempt is exercised in connection with proceedings in the Family Justice Courts, a person who commits contempt of court in Singapore will be liable to be punished with a fine of up to $20,000 and/or with imprisonment for a term of up to 12 months.
However, the General Division of the High Court may discharge the person who has committed contempt if the person “purges” the contempt to the court’s satisfaction. For example, someone found to be in contempt for not abiding by maintenance orders may, at the court’s discretion, be discharged by making full payments of the maintenance orders.
Other Divorce-Related Offences
Divorcing parties can also find themselves on the wrong side of the law for committing offences other than flouting court orders. These include non-consensual sexual contact and unlawful stalking.
In one case, a woman was granted personal protection orders for herself and her three children against her abusive husband. While divorce proceedings were underway, her husband continued to harass and molest his then-wife. For his actions, the man pleaded guilty to 9 counts of outrage of modesty and offences under the Women’s Charter and Protection from Harassment Act. He was sentenced to imprisonment for about 10 months and fined $5,000.
In another case, with divorce proceedings ongoing, the husband threatened to send sexually explicit photos of his then-wife to her employer if she did not give him her wedding ring and gold bracelet. When she refused, he sent her emails, text messages and voice messages incessantly over months, which resulted in him being charged with unlawful stalking.
For each count of unlawful stalking, first-time offenders can be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months. These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.
As noted by a judge, “the family justice regime in Singapore rests on the power of the court to achieve a just and equitable division of matrimonial assets upon the breakdown of a marriage. This objective, however, cannot be equitably achieved if parties … act in wilful disobedience of judgments or orders of the court.”
The law of contempt can be used to deal with such situations, subjecting non-compliant individuals to penalties as discussed above, and thereby discouraging such behaviour from manifesting in the first place.
If your ex-spouse has not complied with any divorce court orders, you may wish to hire a divorce lawyer who can advise you on your legal options – such as whether it would be better to attempt to negotiate with your ex-spouse, proceed with enforcement proceedings or commence contempt of court proceedings. The lawyer will also be able to advise you on the steps to be taken for any course of action that you eventually decide on.
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