On 4 July 2023, amendments to the Women’s Charter were passed to strengthen protection for victims of family violence and facilitate better rehabilitation of perpetrators. Under the new law, “family violence” refers to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse.
The Women’s Charter provides statutory protection for victims of family violence regardless of gender. Part 7 of the Women’s Charter contains all the provisions pertaining to family violence, and this article will outline the key amendments that have been introduced such as the:
What are the Amendments That have been Introduced?
Updated definition of “family violence”
One of the most significant changes brought about by the amendments is the updated definition of “family violence”. The update makes clear that “family violence” includes not just physical, but also sexual, emotional and psychological abuse. This is a significant change because the expanded definition of family violence offers broader protection to victims of family violence, particularly for less obvious forms of abuse such as emotional and psychological abuse.
We will consider these forms of abuse in turn:
- Physical abuse: This refers to causing, or threatening to cause personal injury or physical pain to someone, or threatening them with death or injury. To illustrate, a parent who smashes furniture in the house, thereby causing the child to be in fear of personal injury, can be said to have committed physical abuse against the child. Physical abuse also includes wrongfully confining or restraining someone against their will.
- Sexual abuse: This refers to coercing, or attempting to coerce, someone to engage in sexual activity. This could include the perpetrator forcing their spouse to engage in sexual intercourse with them against their will by threatening violence if the spouse refuses to comply.
- Emotional or psychological abuse: This refers to tormenting, intimidating, harassing or distressing someone. Emotional or psychological abuse also refers to conduct that causes mental harm to someone, such as suicidal thoughts or self-harm. To provide an example, one who spreads false rumours about their spouse being promiscuous, causing distress to said spouse, commits emotional or psychological abuse against their spouse. In addition, controlling and coercive behaviour also falls under the scope of emotional or psychological abuse — this covers situations where perpetrators threaten not to give a monthly allowance to their spouses, prevent them from leaving the house, isolate them from friends and family and call them incessantly to check their location.
Finally, abuse may come in the form of a single abusive incident, or a course of abusive conduct/ behaviour which is repeated over a period of time.
Stay Away Order/No Contact Order
In addition to the pre-existing Domestic Exclusion Order which excludes a perpetrator from the survivor’s home, the amendments allow survivors, and Protectors on behalf of survivors (see below), to apply for a Stay Away Order or No Contact Order or both in situations where perpetrators continue to harass survivors outside their homes. These orders can also be made on the initiative of the court. The introduction of these orders helps to strengthen legal protection for survivors, as breaches of these orders are punishable with imprisonment and/or fines.
- Stay Away Order: This prohibits a perpetrator from entering or remaining in locations frequented by the survivor, including an area outside the survivor’s home. Examples include the survivor’s workplace and the school in which the survivor has enrolled their child.
- No Contact Order: This prevents the perpetrator from visiting or communicating with the survivor.
Enhanced powers given to “Protectors”
Protectors are persons with the requisite qualifications and experience who have been appointed by the Director-General of Social Welfare to intervene in cases where adult survivors who possess mental capacity choose not to seek help despite being subjected to family violence.
Previously, the position was that an adult survivor’s right to self-determination should be respected, hence the law would only intervene if the survivor chose to seek help. However, there have been instances where adult survivors put themselves at risk of harm by not choosing to seek help. Amendments have therefore been made to allow Protectors to step in and safeguard the personal safety of adult survivors.
Protectors will have the power to enter any premises without having to give notice in order to make an assessment of whether someone has experienced, or is at risk of, family violence. They will also have the power to issue Emergency Orders on-site in high-risk cases where the Protector is satisfied that there is an imminent danger of a perpetrator committing family violence against a survivor within the next 14 days.
The Emergency Order comes into effect immediately and is valid for 14 days. During this time, the survivor can apply for a Personal Protection Order (PPO), which is a court order restraining someone from committing family violence against a family member. The Emergency Order may include a Domestic Exclusion Order, a Stay Away Order, a No Contact Order, or a combination of these orders. It is worth noting that an Emergency Order is meant to be a stopgap measure, while PPOs and other court orders continue to remain the main methods of enforcement and protection.
Protectors can apply for electronic monitoring, which includes e-tagging. Electronic monitoring is to be used against high-risk perpetrators, where the perpetrator has breached a family violence court order and caused harm to the survivor, and the survivor has not taken steps to protect himself or herself.
To illustrate, e-tagging a perpetrator allows the authorities to be alerted in a timely fashion if a perpetrator violates a Domestic Exclusion Order and enters a survivor’s home. Action can then be taken quickly to protect the survivor from danger.
Removal of survivors from their homes
In the event that all other forms of intervention have failed, Protectors may apply to the court for the removal of a survivor from their home as a measure of last resort. This is known as a Removal Order, and the court must also make a Care Order, a Supervision Order, or both, alongside a Removal Order.
- Care Order: This commits the survivor to the care of a fit person, which could include a competent individual or organisation, for a specified period of time.
- Supervision Order: This places the survivor under the supervision of a Protector or another suitable court-appointed person for a specified period of time.
Following removal from the home, a survivor may be placed in a residential facility such as a crisis shelter. In addition, the court may make an order prohibiting the survivor from returning home or having any form of contact or communication with the perpetrator. This is to protect the survivor from the possibility of further danger. It should be highlighted once again that Removal Orders will be made only in exceptional, high-risk cases where all other alternatives have been exhausted.
How would the amendments deal with cases involving minors and/or vulnerable adult survivors?
The amendments allow younger survivors between the ages of 18 and 21 to better protect themselves by allowing them to apply for a PPO on their own without having to rely on any guardian to apply for the PPO on their behalf. They also no longer need to be legally represented and can act for themselves.
As for children and vulnerable adults (individuals aged 18 and above suffering from mental or physical disabilities that render them incapable of protecting themselves from abuse), the Ministry of Social and Family Development has statutory powers under the Children and Young Persons Act and Vulnerable Adults Act to provide protection to these groups.
What about penalties and measures against the perpetrators/offenders?
Apart from strengthening legal protection for survivors of family violence, the amendments also bring about enhanced enforcement measures and penalties against perpetrators. In this regard, penalties for breaches of family violence-related court orders have been increased. The maximum fine for breaching a family violence-related court order will be increased from $2,000 to $10,000, while the maximum imprisonment term will be increased from 6 to 12 months.
Additionally, someone who is guilty of an aggravated offence will be liable to a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 18 months, or both. A family violence offence is aggravated if the offender has contravened an order protecting a vulnerable adult (defined earlier in the article), and the offender has been convicted of another family violence offence that involves the contravention of the same order or another order that also protects a vulnerable adult.
In addition to enhanced penalties, the amendments aim to strengthen rehabilitative efforts for perpetrators of family violence. Previously, the court might make a Counselling Order along with a PPO, requiring perpetrators to undergo a counselling programme organised by MSF-appointed social service agencies. The amendments broaden the scope of the Counselling Order to include other measures such as parenting programmes, family therapy and caregiver training, among others.
However, counselling may not be an effective solution for certain perpetrators as they may be suffering from psychiatric conditions that contribute towards their commission of family violence. For such perpetrators, the court may order psychiatric assessments to determine whether a Mandatory Treatment Order should be made, and such an order could include requiring the perpetrator to stay in a psychiatric institution. It should be noted that breaches of Counselling Orders and Mandatory Treatment Orders are considered offences that could subject the perpetrator to a fine of up to $2,000.
To conclude, the amendments to the Women’s Charter aim to afford enhanced protection for survivors of family violence while simultaneously strengthening efforts to deter and rehabilitate perpetrators. Significant amendments include updating the definition of ‘family violence’, enhancing the powers of Protectors to intervene and ensure the safety of survivors, electronic monitoring and enhancing penalties for perpetrators of family violence.
If you require further advice on matters concerning family violence, or how you may be affected by the amendments covered above, you may wish to get in touch with a family lawyer who can assess your situation and provide guidance on the appropriate course of action to take. You can find a family lawyer that best suits your needs through our Find a Lawyer service.