BY K.C. VIJAYAN SENIOR LAW CORRESPONDENT, Straits Times 22 April 2014
A JUDGE debunked the idea that maintenance was an “unalloyed right” of a woman and suggested a wider Marriage Charter might someday replace the current Women’s Charter.
Justice Choo Han Teck said a woman who is truly independent and equal in a marriage would not need patronising gestures of maintenance, which belie “deep chauvinistic thinking”.
His comments came in decision grounds released yesterday explaining why he rejected a woman’s $120,000 maintenance claim from her former spouse after their 10-year marriage ended in 2012.
He noted the idea for women to seek maintenance evolved out of the 1961 Women’s Charter that was passed to protect women when many were housewives supported by their husbands.
But this was “yoked to an old attitude that should be changed”, he said. “If it were to continue even where the protection is no longer needed, it might lead to the suppression of women in the name of chivalry.”
He added to award her even a token sum “would be wrong if it was merely symbolic. That symbol for women has to be torn asunder in fact and in spirit”.
He said the time may come for a “wider, more encompassing Bill” suitably named the Marriage Charter but stressed it was for Parliament to decide ” when that moment might be”.
The couple, he a 47-year-old senior prison officer and she a 48-year-old regional sales manager of a multinational firm, married in 2002 and lived apart after six years. She has a 17-year-old son from a previous marriage whom he adopted and for whose maintenance he pays $1,000 a month, which the court upheld. The parties cannot be named under the law.
At issue was the $120,000 lump sum maintenance she sought, “presumably” computed at $1,000 a month for their decade-long marriage, noted the judge.
The woman earned slightly more than he did. She grossed $215,900 in annual income according to her 2010 income tax returns. They kept and spent their personal income separately and were financially independent of each other. She had more assets than him.
Justice Choo said there should be no maintenance order if the court as in the present case finds she had not depended on her former spouse before and will not rely on any future maintenance monies. Nor should there be an order for “no maintenance but with liberty to apply”, which would apply in cases such as where the former husband is ill but subsequently recovers to be able to pay maintenance.
“If women were to be treated as equal to men in marriage and in divorce, this distinction is important.”
The woman’s lawyer, Ms Helen Chia, had pointed out she had been devoted to husband and child while juggling her full-time job. Justice Choo said this was taken into account when they agreed on how matrimonial assets should be divided.
He added this was not an exceptional case, pointing to a recent High Court ruling in which the wife applied for maintenance and was denied as she was a business-savvy woman who could hold her own. Lawyers said the judge’s remarks were a recognition of changing financial realities in spousal relationships.
Lawyer Anuradha Sharma, who represented the husband, said: “The Women’s Charter is still needed now but the judge is looking ahead to laws that will keep apace with the updated status of the respective spouses.”