On 15 December 2021, celebrity Mandopop singer Wang Lee Hom announced on social media that he and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Lee Jinglei, were getting divorced. This began a war of words between Wang and Lee, and even between their respective friends and family, that lasted about a week before Wang apologised publicly to Lee and announced that he would be taking a break from work.
Further negative publicity for Wang erupted when Lee alleged recently that she feared for her and the children’s safety when Wang brought three men to their Taipei flat to visit their children despite her objections.
This very public saga begs the question whether divorce proceedings are usually so public and so acrimonious. Our answer – they are not.
In this article, through our expertise from our family law teams in Singapore and Hong Kong, we examine six ways on how typical divorce proceedings differ from Wang’s and Lee’s experiences, and share some practical tips on how parties who are intending to or undergoing a divorce can help manage the process so as to minimise animosity and make an already unpleasant process, more bearable.
1. Divorce proceedings are private
It is understandable that Wang and Lee felt a need to announce their divorce to the general public. After all, they are celebrities and are hailed as role models by some. Wang’s announcement, however, may have been made hastily and without sufficient time for consideration because the divorce was leaked by a Taiwanese magazine just hours before. Wang’s announcement, unfortunately, began the nasty war of words between the former spouses and their respective camps.
Divorces in Singapore and Hong Kong are generally not made public. Under the Singapore Family Justice Rules 2014, all documents filed in divorce proceedings are confidential. Third parties do not have the power to inspect case files and retrieve Court documents. All hearings and trials are also held ‘in camera’, meaning that third parties are, unlike most other Court proceedings, not allowed to attend and witness the proceedings unless permission of the Court is granted.
Divorces in Hong Kong may be made public if they become defended as these hearings are heard in open court. This does not generally mean the action in respect of the finances or the children, but only the question of the divorce itself. Sensationally, in 2011, the Hong Kong court allowed the financial case of Florence Tsang Chui-wing, the former wife of property tycoon Samathur Li Kin-kan, to be played out in open court. She argued successfully that there was a strong public interest in the open administration of justice in this case. Their divorce case attracted huge attention in the press in 2011 offering the public a rare glimpse into the lifestyles of the city’s super-rich. At first instance her financial settlement amounted to HK$1.4 billion, but that was cut, in the Court of Appeal to HK$411 million and the Final Court of Appeal refused further leave to appeal. The publicity didn’t, in the end, assist either of the parties. The usual practice is that appeals to the Court of Appeal will be in open court but appeals tend to be more focused and the evidence limited to the issues before the court. The ability to view details of the case at appeal is more to do with open justice than for the tabloids to spread gossip.
Whilst the parties themselves remain free to disclose the divorce proceedings, it is generally inadvisable to publicise one’s own divorce proceedings. This is because public disclosure of the divorce may be regarded by the Court as a means of illegitimately placing pressure on the other party, and could result in an adverse finding. If the parties are in the midst of negotiating an amicable settlement, an unwelcome public disclosure of the negotiations may also dampen the mood for amicable negotiations. Finally, if the public announcement contains untruths or misrepresentations, an aggrieved party could seek an injunction and damages under the Protection from Harassment Act in Singapore or the Defamation Ordinance in Hong Kong where the ultimate sanction could be two years imprisonment.
As for parties for whom an announcement is necessary (eg. public figures or celebrities), such announcements should be discussed with the other side before being published. Such discussions should pertain to the timing of the announcement, the content of the announcement, the media in which the announcement is made, and (especially) whether such an announcement should even be made.
2. Settlements are also private
In the course of the exchange of allegations between the parties, Wang and Lee both made representations as to what Lee would be receiving post-divorce. In Lee’s case, she included a screenshot of a legal document to support her allegations.
As indicated above, documents filed in divorce proceedings in Singapore are confidential, as well as in most cases in Hong Kong. Whilst this does not stop the parties from sharing with third parties the outcome in their cases without sharing the Court documents themselves, it remains generally inadvisable to publicly share such information.
Parties that require greater assurance of the confidentiality and privacy of their settlements can and should enter into a separate deed (often called post-nuptial deeds or agreements) to record their agreement. Such a deed should contain privacy and non-disclosure clauses to specifically protect the terms of the agreement from disclosure, and to provide for relief in the event of a breach.
3. The ground of divorce does not affect the outcome in the division of assets
In early 2022, an anonymous person wrote a short post on Weibo, refuting on Wang’s behalf some of the allegations made by Lee. In the course of this post, the person highlighted that if Lee had proof that Wang was involved in extra-marital relationships, she would have received more of his assets.
If the divorce had taken place in Singapore or Hong Kong instead, this would not have been the case. In Singapore and Hong Kong, the ancillary matters (ie. issues pertaining to the parties’ finances and their children) are decided without reference to the reason for the divorce. In determining the division of assets, in particular, the Court looks at the parties’ contributions to the marriage – not the reasons for the divorce. In Hong Kong there are a number of factors which the court must consider, including conduct, but this generally means financial or litigation misconduct. The grounds for the divorce are thus irrelevant per se to the ancillary matters.
While it is possible that a party might attempt to argue that the other party’s infidelities affected his / her ability to contribute during the marriage, such a line of argument is often difficult to substantiate and prove. At the end of the day, the Court’s power to divide the matrimonial assets is very broad and based on what would be seen to be a fair division having regards to the facts of the case.
4. Friends and family of the couple are generally not involved in the divorce proceedings
In the course of the allegations between Wang and Lee, many other celebrities and family members became involved. This is either when they became caught in the crossfire, or when they decided to step in to defend one party or the other.
Whilst this is indeed possible, divorce proceedings do not necessarily need to involve third parties. Whilst parties can sometimes be tempted to call friends and family to write testimonials on their behalf, this is rarely advisable. The Court is sufficiently well-equipped to make the decision on the divorce and ancillary matters without involving third parties in the matter. In most ancillary matters hearings, the Court does not even make reference to the third party evidence. Indeed, the vast majority of cases are determined without third parties being involved.
It is, however, not possible to prevent the opposing party from calling third party witnesses. When this happens, the party on the receiving end will need to consult with his / her legal advisers to determine whether the third party evidence is material and needs to be rebutted, or whether it can safely be ignored as being part of an unwise legal strategy.
5. It is inadvisable to stop working post-divorce
After the exchange of words in December 2021, Wang announced that he will stop working temporarily to step away from the spotlight.
Whilst Wang may have the means to do so (and to pay Lee a huge amount in spousal maintenance in the meantime), it is generally inadvisable for parties to stop working post-divorce.
For parties that have children and who both work, they both need to continue to the children’s expenses post-divorce. Such contributions will need to continue even if either of them decide to stop working post-divorce. The Court will not allow a party to shirk his / her responsibility to the children and voluntarily stop working post-divorce. If a party wants to take time off work to recover post-divorce, he / she will need to do it on his / her own time.
For parties who do not have children, it will be easier to stop working to focus on self-care post-divorce. They will still, however, need to do this at their own expense and cannot turn to their ex-spouse for financial support in the meantime.
6. Parties generally comply with their obligations
It was reported in January 2022 that Wang entered Lee’s home to visit the children. He, however, brought three staffers to accompany him despite her earlier objections, and in spite of an agreement not to bring third parties to visit the children without the other party’s consent.
Wang’s decision to bring staffers to accompany him appears to be a breach of the agreement that he and Lee arrived at. His agency said that he brought company to join him on his lawyers’ advice.
In our experience, parties in Singapore generally comply with their obligations, whether under an order of Court or an agreement or otherwise. This is facilitated by a rule under the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules 2015 which stipulates that lawyers must advise their clients to comply with “every legal requirement” in respect of their matter. In other words, a lawyer cannot advise his / her client to breach an order of Court.
In Hong Kong, parties can take out an injunction to stop a party from wrongly entering a premise. Wang’s actions with his staffers in breach of their agreement could have resulted in a non-molestation injunction against him, with a power of arrest attached.
If there is an order of Court or an agreement, it is important for both parties to comply strictly with its terms unless there is an agreement to behave otherwise. So as not to inflame tensions, parties should generally not take unilateral action in a divorce matter, especially if it pertains to children. Even if the other party is perceived as being unreasonable, such disputes should be dealt with through correspondence between counsels. If counsels are unable to come to an agreement through correspondence, the Court’s intervention can be invoked as a last resort. It is, however, important not to take unilateral, self-help action to enforce what one perceives to be the correct interpretation of an order of Court or agreement. This will only exacerbate tension and mistrust between the parties and worsen the proceedings, and co-parenting relationship post-divorce.
Highly-publicised celebrity divorces are not representative of what most people experience. Such divorces are sometimes acrimonious, sometimes sensationalised by the media (and thus inaccurately portrayed), and often involve people with a vastly different lifestyles and needs.
So as to prevent a divorce from reaching a level of acrimony and (unwanted) publicity as Wang’s and Lee’s, it is important that parties undergoing or contemplating a divorce should be mindful of the following:
1. Engage competent specialist legal advisers at the outset, before taking any public or significant steps, and run proposed courses of action with your legal advisers who should advise you on next steps having regard to your concerns.
2. Refrain from making posts about the divorce on social media, and only if absolutely necessary, run all public statements pertaining to the divorce with legal advisers before posting.
3. Reach out to the other party early and in a candid but constructive manner, propose to discuss the potential divorce and related issues.
4. Discuss the issues in a candid and constructive manner, to ensure that expectations are appropriately set and any agreement that is arrived at is in fact palatable to both parties.
5. If a public announcement has to be made in respect of the divorce, such an announcement should be discussed with the other party and / or their legal advisers before it is posted.
6. It is of paramount importance that orders of Court or agreements are complied with. If there is a dispute over the interpretation or enforcement of an order or agreement, parties should never engage in unilateral, self-help, remedies. Go through your lawyers, or as a last resort, invoke the Court’s intervention.
As the saying goes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Every divorce case is unique. While there may be trends and patterns, every case charts its own unique course of action. No two cases are identical. What is important is that the parties as far as possible should be mindful of how their actions and words may have lasting and unintended consequences on how their divorce proceedings pan out. By being mindful of their actions and seeking advice from competent specialist family lawyers, divorce does not have to be an acrimonious, bitter war of attrition.
This article was first published on Asia Law Network here and on Her World Singapore here.