“Family violence” in general terms refers to various forms of violence occurring within families. It is often referred to as domestic violence. Although spousal violence is the most common form of family violence, it is an umbrella term that refers to more than violence between heterosexual married couples. It is also not just physical aggression or verbal abuse. It can include emotional or sexual abuse, and victims can be spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, and stepfamily.
Although women suffer the most under male perpetrators, men can also be victims of family violence. The law does not distinguish based on gender. The courts consider each case of alleged family violence on its merits.
In Singapore, there are strict laws protecting victims against family violence.
How does the law define family violence?
Section 64 of the Women’s Charter defines family violence as the commission of any of the following acts:
- wilfully or knowingly placing a family member in fear of hurt;
- wilfully or knowingly attempting to place a family member in fear of hurt;
- causing hurt by acting in a way that is known or ought to have been known to result in hurt;
- wrongfully confining or restraining a family member against their will; and
- causing continual harassment with intent to cause or knowing that it is likely to cause anguish to a family member.
It does not include lawful action used in self-defence or force used by way of correction towards a child below 21 years old.
Who is protected under section 64?
A “family member” includes:
- a spouse / former spouse of the person;
- a child of the person, including an adopted child and a stepchild;
- a father or mother of the person;
- a father-in-law or mother-in-law of the person;
- a sibling of the person; and
- any other relative of the person or an incapacitated person who in the opinion of the court should, in the circumstances, be regarded as a family member of the person.
From this definition, it is clear that “family member” has a broad definition. If the person needing protection is a child or an incapacitated person, a guardian or a relative, or person responsible for the care of the child or incapacitated person, can apply for protection.
What must you prove?
The person applying for protection must prove that violence has been committed or is likely to be committed on a balance of probabilities. The victim would have to present evidence to the court to support a family violence claim.
Evidence can include:
- your testimony in court;
- supporting testimony from witnesses, if available;
- medical reports setting out the scope of the injuries;
- police reports;
- photo evidence, if available – it is important to include dates on the photos; and
- evidence supporting your claim that the perpetrator is a family member as defined in section 64.
What can a victim of family violence do to protect themselves from future violence or threats of violence?
Call the police
The quickest way to find immediate protection is to contact the police and file a police report. You should supply the police with as much evidence as possible, including witness names and whether any weapons were used. The police will investigate the case and recommend prosecution if there is sufficient evidence.
Other forms of protection for victims include Protection Orders, Domestic Exclusion Orders, Expedited Orders and Mandatory Counselling Orders.
Personal Protection Orders (PPO)
Section 65 of the Women’s Charter grants victims of family violence protection in the form of a Personal Protection Order. In simple terms, a Personal Protection Order is an order restraining the perpetrator from committing any family violence against the victim.
All Singapore citizens, or persons domiciled in Singapore who qualifies as a family member, can apply to the Family Justice Court for a Personal Protection Order. They must be older than 21 years old and not an incapacitated person.
If the person is incapacitated or younger than 21 years old, a guardian or relative may apply on their behalf. If the person is younger than 21 years old but is married or has been married before, they may also apply for a Personal Protection Order.
What happens when you apply for a PPO?
Victims can make a PPO application at the Family Justice Courts and specific Family Violence Specialist Centres or online via iFAMS.
A court hearing will be scheduled after processing the application. The respondent will be notified to prepare a statement in response to the victim’s (the applicant) statement in the application. The respondent may also include witness statements.
When all statements have been exchanged, a hearing date will be set.
At the hearing, the court will hear evidence from both sides to determine if family violence was committed or is likely to be committed and whether a PPO is necessary for protection.
If, for example, the parties no longer live together and contact is unlikely, the court may decide a PPO is not necessary.
How does the court decide to grant an order?
The court will make an order restraining the person (against who the order is made) from using family violence against the victim, if the court is satisfied, on a balance of probabilities, that:
- family violence has been committed, or is likely to be committed against a family member; and
- the order is necessary to protect the victim.
How long does it take?
If the perpetrator agrees to the order, it can take less than two months to obtain a PPO. If the perpetrator disputes the order, it can take between 3 to 6 months before getting a PPO.
You can apply for an expedited order under section 66 of the Women’s Charter if you face imminent danger.
The court will decide on an application for an Expedited Order based on the urgency of the matter. An expedited order can be applied for in conjunction with a Personal Protection Order.
The Expedited Order will be served on the perpetrator before the court decides on the PPO application. It serves as urgent, temporary protection for the victim.
The order takes effect on the date it is served on the perpetrator, or a later date specified by the court. It is only valid for 28 days or up until the first day of the PPO hearing, whichever is first. The court may, however, extend the order.
Domestic Exclusion Order
Section 65(5) of the Women’s Charter provides for Domestic Exclusion Orders. It can also be applied for when applying for a PPO. It excludes the perpetrator’s family member from entering the victim’s residence or part of the residence. Domestic Exclusion Orders are particularly suited in situations where the parties continue to live together and there is continued violence against the victim.
The court will grant an exclusion order if the court thinks it is necessary for the protection or personal safety of the applicant victim. In effect, it gives the victim the exclusive occupation of the shared residence or a specified part of the shared residence.
The court can grant an Exclusion Order, even if the order is against a person who is the sole owner or lessee of the shared residence.
Mandatory Counselling Orders
Under section 65(5)(b), the court may order the person against whom the order is made, or the protected person, or both, to attend counselling at a court-appointed body. The order may include the children. A counselling order is made with a PPO.
What happens if the Protection Order is disobeyed?
Suppose the perpetrator continues to commit violence against the victim. In that case, it is a breach of a court order and can be punished. It is also considered a criminal offence.
A first offence will be liable to a fine of up to S$2000, imprisonment up to 6 months, or both. Any subsequent convictions can lead to a fine of up to S$5000 or imprisonment of 12 months, or both.
What if the perpetrator is not a family member as defined by section 64?
If you are hurt by a person who is not a “family member,” for example, a partner who is not your spouse or a domestic worker. In that case, you are still entitled to apply for a Protection Order under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Protection under the POHA covers more than physical violence; it includes threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour or fear of violence.
You should also file a police report as soon as possible. The perpetrator may be liable under the Penal Code. Depending on the severity of the injuries, the perpetrator can be guilty of Hurt or Grievous Hurt and sentenced under the Penal Code.
Family violence is nothing new. Sadly, the pandemic has resulted in an increase of family or domestic violence cases, and the situation is unlikely to improve.
Fortunately, Singapore law does not tolerate family violence and offers effective protection. If you find yourself in a family violence situation, you should seek legal assistance as soon as possible.