Madam, this Bill will allow the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents to take into account a history of abuse, neglect or abandonment when making a maintenance order.
It will also empower a Tribunal to better deal with frivolous or vexatious applications. The Bill will also allow the Commissioner and Tribunal to engage children of destitute parents and to facilitate conciliation where appropriate.
I have three points of clarification.
Madam, actually I should say I had three points of clarification. I left my speech on my chair and I think Member of Parliament Murali Pillai must have read it because he has addressed most of the points that I am about to raise but he said it, he felt that the points were pertinent ones, and he has foreseen that someone will raise it and that he will address it earlier on in this debate.
Madam, my first clarification is on the involvement of children in applications for maintenance with records or purported records of abandonment, abuse or neglect of the child. Under the new section 3B(2), the application for permission must be dealt with without informing or involving the child, except where the child was already involved in any prior conciliation and is agreeable to participate in proceedings.
I understand the need to avoid re-traumatising a child who may have been previously abandoned, abused or neglected, as Member of Parliament Murali had raised. However, the child may wish to have the opportunity to decide whether or not to participate in the application for permission.
The Commissioner or Tribunal may grant permission for a maintenance application if they find that there is a good arguable case that the parent did not abandon, abuse or neglect the child. Or there is a good arguable case that the child should maintain the parent on just and equitable ground. How can the Commissioner or Tribunal determine whether there is a good arguable case if the child does not even know that the application for permission has been made?
Has the Member considered whether it might be traumatic as well for a child who was not involved in the permission application to suddenly be told that he or she now face a maintenance application because the Commissioner or Tribunal found that there was no abandonment, abuse or neglect? And this finding was made without hearing from the child? How will the communication to the child be managed in this case?
All the more so if the Tribunal found that there was a good arguable case that there was no abuse. Can the Member further share the rationale behind not even informing the child of the application for permission?
My second set of clarifications is about allowing applications for permission where there are records of abandonment, abuse or neglect. Member Murali had addressed my clarification on when the application for permission would be granted at the President or Deputy President and when it would be referred to the Tribunal for decision.
Beyond that, under the new section 3B(7), permission may be granted if there is a good arguable case that the parent did not abandon, abuse or neglect the child or that the child should maintain the parent on just and equitable grounds.
Can the Member clarify what is required evidentially to show a good arguable case? Given that suffering and abuse are contextual and subjective, can the Member share what guidance will be provided to the Tribunal to ensure consistency in decision-making? Can the Member also share if a child will have the opportunity to challenge the Tribunal’s decision to grant permission for the maintenance application?
Lastly, my last clarification is on the definition of record or purported record of abandonment, abuse or neglect. This is defined as any record against or relating to the person that is prescribed to be a record or purported record of the person’s abandonment, abuse or neglect of a child of the person.
However, we are aware that there is a potential problem of underreported child abuse cases. MSF’s data showed a sharp increase in child abuse cases over the past decade. In 2014, 381 cases were investigated by MSF’s Child Protective Services. In 2021, this figure soared to 2,141, the highest in a decade.
MSF explained that the number of cases has increased since 2015 when MSF introduced more rigorous screening tools and training for professionals. MSF stated that this helped to sharpen the ability of sector professionals to pick up safety concerns for a child and seek appropriate intervention.
I am glad that we are now investigating and detecting more abuse cases. However, this also suggests that there may have been a significant extent of under-reporting of child abuse prior to 2015. Can the Member share whether the standard of proof for pre-2015 child abuse cases be adjusted to take into account the potential issue of under-reporting?
Madam, notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support the Bill.
Watch the speech here.