Muslims who divorce abroad: Courts can rule on assets here

In a key decision, the top court has held that Muslim divorcees who split up in a foreign country can still seek relief from the Singapore civil court for the division of their matrimonial assets here.

The five-judge court, in allowing a Muslim woman's appeal, held that there was nothing to suggest that Parliament intended to provide such relief only to non-Muslims when it updated the Women's Charter in 2011.

"At the heart of this appeal lies the question of whether parties to a Muslim marriage whose marriage had been dissolved by an order of a foreign court, in this case a court in Johor Baru... may seek financial relief consequential upon the divorce from the Singapore court," wrote Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in the court's judgment grounds issued on Tuesday.

Underscoring the importance of the issue, a five-judge appeal court was convened to hear the appeal last November, instead of the usual three.

It comprised Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang, Judith Prakash and Tay Yong Kwang, in addition to Chief Justice Menon.

The Singaporean couple married here under Muslim law in 1998, and moved to Johor Baru 10 years later.

In 2012, the 52-year-old man divorced the woman, 37, in the Johor Sharia Subordinate Court, allegedly without telling her.

Both have since remarried. She has custody of their two children.

Following the split, the woman applied to the courts here to divide their assets, which included a five-room Housing Board flat in Yishun, an apartment in Johor, and her former husband's Central Provident Fund balance of some $210,000 in 2013.

She said the assets up for division totalled $1,079,249.

She had applied initially to the Singapore Syariah Court to divide the assets, but it did not have jurisdiction because it was not the court that dissolved the marriage.

It did, however, have the power under Muslim law to award her $45,847 against her former husband as maintenance and gift.

Her lawyers, Mr Mohamed Ibrahim and Mr Sri Balan Krishnan, then applied to the High Court for the division of assets. But the application was turned down last April, which led to their present appeal before the apex court.

The court noted that the relevant laws held that where a matter does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court, the High Court retains a "residual jurisdiction" over the matter.

It found that the relevant provision of the Women's Charter, which excluded the woman from applying for relief in the High Court, kicked in only if the Syariah Court in Singapore had jurisdiction over the matter - which it did not.

If both the Syariah Court and High Court do not have jurisdiction, Chief Justice Menon said it would mean that "both courts would be powerless and this would entitle the husband to avoid having the parties' matrimonial property in Singapore divided simply by obtaining his divorce overseas".

"We do not think that Parliament intended such an anomalous result," he wrote.

He clarified that Parliament introduced Chapter 4A of the Women's Charter to resolve difficulties and to empower the High Court to order financial relief to those issued with divorces by overseas courts that are recognised as valid here.

The court ordered the case to be remitted to the High Court to decide on the orders to be granted, if any.

This article was first published on Feb 24, 2017.
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