The High Court on Friday (30 Apr) reserved judgement on the application of 13 SBS Transit bus drivers to transfer their lawsuit against the company from the Magistrates’ Court to the High Court on the grounds of several important questions of law of public interest relating to provisions in the Employment Act.
Their lawyer M Ravi of Carson Law Chambers said that the questions of law related to such provisions will not only impact their cases but may also affect the rights of all 6,000 SBS Transit bus drivers.
A team of lawyers for SBS Transit, led by Davinder Singh SC, argued that the present application — with one of the drivers, Chua Qwong Meng pushing for his case to be a ‘test case’ — is a means of nullifying “everything that the Magistrate’s Court has done in managing the case”.
They highlighted that the State Courts had proposed during a case management conference the idea of a test case on terms agreed upon by the parties involved in the present application, and had subsequently granted a consent order on 8 May last year for the claims to be heard in the State Courts.
SBS Transit’s lawyers said that Mr Chua “does not and cannot dispute the circumstances” in which the consent order was made, and that this was recorded.
Mr Chua’s lawyers, they said, had only evidently contested the matter when they wrote on 11 Feb this year asking if SBS Transit would agree for his claim to be transferred to the High Court, to which SBS Transit did not agree.
By making the present application, Mr Chua is thus seeking to undermine or challenge the consent order granted by the State Courts on 8 May last year — an action which has no basis in law, SBS Transit’s lawyers argued.
Neither fraud nor manifest error or any other ground that can quash such a consent order was set out by Mr Chua in his case, they said.
“In any event, even if it was not a consent order, Mr Chua did not appeal it, and he is now well out of time. He would also have no grounds to appeal it,” the lawyers argued.
Thus, relying on the parties’ agreement — and the State Courts’ subsequent order — to have his claim tried as a test case for the purpose of seeking a transfer to the High Court when the order was made under the premise of being tried in the State Courts is an abuse of process, said SBS Transit’s lawyers.
SBS Transit also relied on the express terms of the 8 May 2020 consent order, which states that “any decision, determination and/or finding that is made by any Court in any appeal against the lower Court’s decision”, submitting that what was meant by “lower Court’s decision” is indeed the State Courts’ decision and not any other court.
“The fact that the State Courts and the parties understood this premise is borne out also by the fact that the parties and the State Courts then all proceeded on the basis that Mr Chua’s claim would be tried in the State Courts,” they argued.
SBS Transit also submitted that contrary to Mr Chua and the other 12 bus drivers’ assertion, it is insufficient to simply posit that there is a question of law at hand to be heard — rather, there must be a question of law of importance.
While there could be “some overlap” between Mr Chua’s claims and those made by the other bus captains who have filed similar claims, there are differences among the lawsuits and will thus “have no bearing on the public or others who have their own unique contractual relationships”, SBS Transit’s lawyers argued.
Mr Chua, they added, did not elaborate on how employment terms in Singapore and/or employees in Singapore will be affected by the Court’s ruling of the issues in his suit, stating that issues in his suit are “one-off”.
“There is nothing unique about this case that sets it apart from any other claim for breach of the Employment Act or an employment contract,” they said.
SBS Transit’s lawyers also argued that Mr Chua had failed to explain the delay in making the present application.
They cited Skading Anne v Yeo Kian Seng, in which Justice Belinda Ang dismissed a transfer application due to the applicant’s failure to explain the need behind such a transfer, in addition to having the claim tried in the Magistrates’ Court for two years before applying for a transfer.
In Mr Chua’s case, he had filed the present application when “trial is around the corner and 18 months after he filed his claim”, said SBS Transit.
A transfer at this point in the proceedings would result in a delay to the trial, which SBS Transit’s lawyers argued would unfairly prejudice its client.
Mr Ravi, however, challenged SBS Transit’s premise that “the lower Court’s decision” strictly referred to the State Courts’ decision, submitting that describing the decision of any first-instance court as such a decision is a common occurrence “as a matter of legal parlance”.
Further, implying that “the lower Court’s decision” only references the State Courts’ decision would expressly contradict the phrase “any Court”, as decisions made by the State Courts could only be appealed to the General Division of the High Court, he argued.
“If it’s intended that the trial be held only in the State Courts, why did the Consent Order then contemplates the possibility of appeals to “any Court” rather than the “High Court”?
“The Consent Order itself is therefore wide enough to cover the possibility of the High Court hearing the trial at first instance with an appeal to the Court of Appeal or even the newly formed Appellate Division,” Mr Ravi posited.
Mr Ravi also highlighted that there is no express term in the consent order which bars the bus drivers from applying to transfer the suit to the High Court.
Such a term or clause, if it exists in the consent order issued by the State Courts last year, would have been “contrary to public policy”, as it denies the bus drivers’ access to the courts, he elaborated.
Mr Ravi also challenged SBS Transit’s assertion that the questions raised in the list of claims brought upon are “mixed questions of law and fact” and are not strictly questions of law.
SBS Transit, he argued, is adopting “an over-literal approach” in analysing the questions of law raised in the present application.
Addressing the delay in Mr Chua’s application, Mr Ravi. said that the length of delay should be calculated from the time where the requirements of transferring the case was crystallised.
“In this regard, time should start counting from 8 May 2020, when the Court made the order directing (Mr Chua’s case) to be the test case,” he said.
The 10-month delay, Mr Ravi argued, could not be said to be an undue delay and is merely a “bald assertion of prejudice without any real material to back up”.
“In fact, if the transfer application had been made immediately, (SBS Transit) might still be able to argue that the trial would still be delayed and prejudiced them, whereas they never complained about their lead counsel (Mr Singh SC)’s non-availability delaying the matter and prejudicing them,” Mr Ravi charged.
Mr Ravi in a Facebook post on Friday shared an anecdote from today’s proceedings, in which Mr Shankar had described the bus drivers as “Bus Captains”.
“I interjected to say that my clients do not want a glorified title of a Captain when they were not paid properly,” said Mr Ravi.