Article Abused Vietnamese bride gets free legal aid to divorce Singaporean husband

SINGAPORE - After years of putting up with a husband who abused her, did not allow her to go out of the house and often failed to provide for the family, Vietnamese bride Lyly, 30, decided to leave the Singaporean for good.

Lyly (not her real name) said her former husband, a driver in his 60s, often hit her when he was angry, drunk or lost money at gambling.

Lyly said in English: "I asked him for money (for family expenses) and he always said 'you need money for what? To give to another man?'"

Once, he did not buy any food for her and their son, six, for a week and in desperation after finishing all that could be eaten at home, she called the police for help.

She said of the dire straits she was in then: "I don't know where the market is, where the bus stop is. I have no money and I have no friends."

She fled with her son to a crisis shelter at least three times, but returned to her former husband each time he promised to change.

Still, he continued to hit her and she decided enough was enough.

Lyly, who is now working as a kitchen assistant, said: "My son is so scared of him. All the violence affected my son."

Through the crisis shelter, she was introduced to lawyer June Lim, who acted as her lawyer in her divorce proceedings for free. Lyly has sole custody of their son, a Singaporean.

Her former husband cancelled the long-term visit pass that Lyly was holding after the divorce, but a church friend is now sponsoring Lyly's pass so she can stay in Singapore.

She said: "If not for everyone helping me, I wouldn't know what to do."

A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) spokesman told The Straits Times that widowed or divorced foreign spouses of Singaporeans who have joint or sole custody and who are granted care and control of their Singaporean children under 21 years old are "generally" allowed to stay in Singapore on a long-term visit pass until the child turns 21.

The child lives with the parent who is granted the child's care and control by the courts.

The MHA spokesman said: "This is to allow them to care for their Singaporean children here."

These foreigners can be sponsored to stay in Singapore by another Singaporean or permanent resident who is at least 21 years of age.

After their child turns 21, he or she may sponsor their widowed or divorced parent for the long-term visit pass, subject to the prevailing sponsorship criteria, the MHA spokesman added.

A Law Society Pro Bono Services spokesman said it is important that the Government make public its stance on foreign spouses' immigration status after a divorce, which she described as an approach which is "compassionate and thoughtful".

She noted that many of these foreign wives "suffer in silence" in abusive marriages, afraid to leave their husbands, as the men often threaten to cancel their long-term visit pass and repatriate them without their kids if they end the marriage.

That aside, the foreign spouse's ability to stay in Singapore for the long term is one of the court's key considerations when deciding on who the child lives with after a divorce in the case of transnational families, the Law Society Pro Bono Services spokesman added.

In December 2018, the Law Society Pro Bono Services and Ms June Lim, managing director of Eden Law Corporation, started Project Leaf (Legal Empowerment and Assistance for Foreign Spouses).

The pilot project offers free legal aid to foreign spouses who meet certain criteria, such as having a household per capita income of $950 a month or less.

A spokesman for the Law Society Pro Bono Services said it decided to start this pilot scheme as foreign spouses with Singaporean children are a "particularly vulnerable" group.

They are often dependent on their spouses for all aspects of their lives and they may have no one to turn to for help when they face violence at home or when the marriage breaks down.

"Foreign spouses face the real risk of repatriation if their Singaporean spouse stops sponsoring visa renewals," she said.

"This issue is particularly pressing where they have Singaporean children, who will either be uprooted from the country or separated from their mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers."

The spokesman said that many of these foreign wives cannot afford to hire a lawyer and they do not qualify for legal aid schemes as they are not Singaporeans nor permanent residents.

Besides divorce and its related issues, other common problems these foreign wives face include domestic violence, said the Law Society Pro Bono Services spokesman.

Project Leaf is now part of the Family Justice Support Scheme, which also helps Singaporeans and permanent residents who marginally fail the Legal Aid Bureau's means test, with matrimonial matters.

For the cases they see, many of these foreign wives do not have Singaporean friends, said the spokesman, so they turn to charities and religious groups, among others, to find a Singaporean to sponsor their long-term visit pass.