General household survey results published by the Singapore government reports that Singapore has an increasingly educated population with more dual-income couples, and that children now are more commonly raised by non-parents such as grandparents, other extended family members, and domestic helpers. As such, new legal issues have been met before courts regarding custody, care and control over a child.
On a similar note, the case of UMF v UMG and another  SGHCF 20, delivered on 12th December 2018 by the High Court answered important questions of how the law of guardianship should be applied to parents and non-parents, and how the appropriate balance of authority can be preserved between the two groups of adults. We understand that disputes on custody, care and control over a child is straining on the emotions of parties associated with the child, and that complex legal issues arise in gaining custody, care and control over the child.
The Appellant in this case was the grand-aunt of a 4 year old child. When the child was about 7 days old on 3rd August 2014, the Appellant met with the father who handed over the child to the Appellant. The father signed a “Letter of Guardianship” without the child’s mother’s knowledge. Additionally, the letter stated that the Appellant had “full rights of guardianship”.
The child remained in the care of the Appellant until 12th August 2017, when the child was handed over by the Appellant to the mother. The Appellant expected the child to be returned to her, but as the mother did not want to do so, the Appellant applied for custody, care and control of the child, while the parents filed for a separate application for the return of the child to them.
3 Issues Considered by the High Court
1. A non-parent’s application for custody, care, and control;
The Court stated that it was possible for parents and court-appointed guardians to apply for custody of, access to and maintenance of the child. The Court accepted the view that a grandmother for example, being neither a parent nor a court-appointed guardian, may not be able to apply for access orders. For more comprehensive legal advice regarding the legal rights of parents, guardians, or non-parents, please contact a Specialist Divorce Lawyers to assist you in your concerns.
2. Balance of authority between parents and non-parents, and a child’s well-being;
In cases where there is no evidence to show that it would be contrary to a child’s welfare to be brought up by his or her parents, and where the parents were not unfit, the parents have the sole right over the child. The Court took the view that the applicable test is the child’s welfare, and that “there is a strong supposition that other things being equal, it is in the interests of the child that it shall remain with its natural parents”.
The Court stated that parental responsibility is a “serious obligation not to be taken lightly”, and noted that there would be other people important in the child’s life such as grandparents, step-parents, aunts, and uncles, although for such non-parents, their opportunities and rights to care for and have control over the child are very limited compared to that of parents. They do not have primary obligation, privilege, and responsibility as parents to raise the child as they see fit. The Court further states that unless a child is adopted by another set of parents, parenthood is for life.
Letters by parents providing their consent to the person for “full rights of guardianship”
The Court stated that letters from a parent for a person to have “full rights of guardianship” does not have legal effect of relieving a parent of his or her entire parental responsibility and conferring in wholly on another adult, unless there is an adoption made.
The Court in UMF v UMG stated that Courts should only decide whether there should be wardship ordered if a child is in some need of protection. In the case of UMF v UMG, the Court considered various factors in assessing whether or not a child was in some need of protection. For more comprehensive legal advice, a Specialist Divorce Lawyer is able to guide you and assist you with your concerns regarding an application for adoption and wardship.