Divorces drag on as spouses slug it out

Divorces drag on as spouses slug it out
Top left: MS ELLEN LEE, a family lawyer for 33 years and a Member of Parliament. MR AMOLAT SINGH, a lawyer who represented a man whose wife filed 12 affidavits - running into 700 pages. The man asked Mr Singh to do the same.

A housewife wants a divorce but her husband pleads for a reconciliation. She agrees on condition that his parents, who live with them, move out. She claims that her in-laws are a constant source of friction.

The husband disagrees. And he lists his own set of demands: He will not pay a cent towards her upkeep, she must forsake all claims to the matrimonial flat they own jointly and she must start paying for half of the children's and household expenses, though she does not work.

She is also not to ask about his whereabouts if he returns late, and she cannot see her own family.

The judge granted the woman a divorce on the grounds of his unreasonable behaviour.

"Ironically, his demands exhibited his unreasonable behaviour to the court very well," said the woman's lawyer, Ms Ellen Lee.

Ridiculous demands by warring spouses can mire divorce proceedings in angst and anger and cause some cases to drag on for years, say lawyers, who welcome the new judge-led process of handling divorce cases.

The Family Justice Act, passed by Parliament this month, aims to help resolve family conflicts in a less adversarial manner, with judges focusing on relevant issues concerning the children, maintenance and division of assets.

Ms Lee, a family lawyer for 33 years and a Member of Parliament, said the new Act could help lower the chances of divorce being a "grievance-led process in court".

"Sometimes, it is difficult for lawyers to tell clients to cut to the chase as they feel they are denied justice," she said.

"They are far more likely to take the same advice from a judge, especially a judge who has the skills and training to show support and sympathy."

Family lawyer Anuradha Sharma has been involved in several cases where parties insist on making public irrelevant or sometimes deeply embarrassing details in court documents.

In one case, an aggrieved wife listed details of the sexual demands she said her husband made.

Ms Sharma, who represented the husband, said: "My client was mortified at the thought of 30 or more pages of intimate details being made public, especially since he had already agreed to the divorce."

Eventually, the woman took the judge's advice and agreed to not contest the divorce. "But by then, a lot of time and money had already been spent," said Ms Sharma.

In another case, a wife filed for divorce three years after her husband left her and went to live with his parents. Under Singapore laws, a couple can divorce if they have been separated for three years and both parties agree to end the marriage.

Although the man agreed to a divorce, the wife insisted on producing lengthy affidavits in court - complete with photographs from Facebook - to show that he had an affair during their separation.

"All she wanted was to make him admit to the affair in court, although according to him, it occurred well after their separation," said Ms Sharma. Once more, the case dragged on for a year.

"The new judge-led approach will hopefully cut this unnecessary acrimony in court," said the lawyer.

Among the trickiest and most time-consuming parts of any divorce hearing is the discussion over what is known in legal parlance as "ancillary matters" - which determine costs, custody, division of assets and maintenance issues.

Lawyers say some couples present documents that run into thousands of pages just to vent their pain, even though at this stage the court is no longer looking for the cause of the divorce.

Lawyer Yap Teong Liang, who has been handling divorce cases for 22 years, said: "Even at this stage, we have parties dredging up issues to highlight the terrible things they say their spouse did to them."

Others make difficult demands that test both memory and patience. Mr Yap and lawyer Amolat Singh have had clients whose wives asked for 60 or more documents - such as bank statements and credit card reports - to be produced that date back four years.

Mr Singh once represented a man whose wife filed 12 affidavits - running into 700 pages. The man immediately asked Mr Singh to do the same because he wished to respond to every allegation.

"Some of it was entirely irrelevant," said Mr Singh. "The wife, for instance, wanted the court to know that their adult son had been devastated when the father did not turn up for a parent-teacher meeting when he was in primary school."

The new Act will introduce a template for affidavits used in divorce cases, to zero in on relevant information only.

Mr Singh said: "We're hoping the affidavit templates will put parties in a straitjacket and weed out what is irrelevant."

Women are not the only ones capable of unreasonable behaviour in divorce cases. Lawyer Aye Cheng Shone recalled a case of a woman who was making provisions to buy over one of her estranged husband's flats. He did not live in the flat, but refused to allow her and their child to live in it while the sale process was being finalised. "The flat was vacant - he would allow friends to stay in it - but not his own child," said Ms Shone.

Mr Koh Tien Hua had a case in which the husband sought a reconciliation, but insisted that he should be allowed to continue seeing his mistress.

And Ms Gloria James has seen clients who have cleaned out joint accounts prior to a divorce, locked the spouse and children out of the house and tried to deny the estranged spouse access to the children. Some of the most bitter fights are over the children.

For many who have been bruised by divorce, the bitterness can take years to dissipate.

A 41-year-old mother of three told The Sunday Times she still finds it hard to forgive her ex-husband whose delaying tactics cost her a job.

She said he kept calling her for multiple mediation sessions. "At each session, he would just ask for more visitation rights, but the irony was that he was not seeing the children at all," she said.

A housewife during her marriage, she had started working but had to keep taking time off for court hearings.

"In the end, my boss just said I should concentrate on completing my divorce," she said. "And I lost that job at a time when I needed it most."

radhab@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 17, 2014.
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