Source: Terry Xu

The High Court has ordered SBS Transit Limited to pay S$7,000 in legal costs against 13 bus drivers in a hearing on Wednesday (30 June).

Lawyer M Ravi of K.K. Cheng Law LLC, who represents the bus drivers, said that he had submitted S$10,000 due to ‘the amount of work my team and i have to do and the complexity of the matter”.

SBS Transit Ltd, he said, had submitted S$3,000.

The order on costs came after Justice Audrey Lim on 10 June allowed the bus drivers to transfer their case from the State Courts to the High Court, based on important questions of law or public importance regarding the interpretation of certain Employment Act (EA) provisions relevant to their case.

In the landmark decision, the judge said in a written judgement that the issues raised by the drivers met the first ground concerning important questions of law under Section 54B of the State Courts Act (SCA).

An important question of law, as viewed within the ambit of Section 54B of the SCA, should concern “more than the immediate interests of the parties”.

It should “be of some public importance, or a point of law which would affect other cases”, she added.

However, such a question does not have to be “a difficult or complex one, although it may be so in many instances”, said the judge.

In the case of the 13 SBS Transit bus drivers, questions of law that were raised were brought up in relation to the following EA provisions, among others:

  • Whether a “rest day” within Section 36(1) can be scheduled to enable SBS Transit to compel an employee to work for 12 consecutive days; and
  • Whether the exception under Section 38(2)(f) applies to the bus drivers involved the present case, as they have contended that in the ordinary circumstances, an employee in “public transport” such as a bus driver would not be deemed to fall within the ambit of the CLA given the purpose of the CLA. The exception under s.38(2)(f) permits an employer to require the employee to work in excess of the prescribed limit of hours or to work on a rest day.

Justice Lim found that the above questions of law affect not only the 13 SBS Transit bus drivers, but also “a larger class of employees including those in the public transport sector who may potentially fall within the definition of employees” under Part III of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA).

Part III of the CLA encompasses employees “in any industrial undertaking essential to the economy of Singapore or any of the essential services” listed under the provision, pursuant to Section 38(2)(f) of the EA.

The EA’s provisions on mandated rest days and limits to hours of work, among others, serve as safeguards against the exploitation of the rights of employees, Justice Lim noted.

“The question of whether this can be “overridden” in a case where an employee is deemed to provide essential services, which on its face may not look like a difficult question, is important as it affects a larger population of workers in general and not just the immediate plaintiff or parties to the case,” she reasoned.

Such a question, the judge elaborated, would have “potential ramifications on how such contracts are structured in terms of granting off days, computing overtime pay and determining work hours”.

“This however, is not to be taken to mean that in every case in which a provision of the EA is engaged that it would thus constitute an important question of law,” said Justice Lim.

The group of drivers has recently started a crowdfunding campaign to help cover legal fees for the case which Mr Ravi has been handling on a pro bono basis so far.

One of the drivers, Chua Qwong Meng, started the campaign on behalf of the 13 drivers on GoGetFunding with a target of S$90,000.

“We are trying to raise $90,000 to help with the High Court trial which might head up to the Court of Appeal,” said Mr Chua on the campaign site, adding that “there is too much at stake to stop here now”.

He explained that several of the drivers’ employment contracts had been terminated since the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore became more severe. This made it difficult for the group to keep up with the instalments of legal fees to Mr Ravi.

The drivers have raised only 5 per cent of its target amount, coming from 93 donors who gave S$4,745 in total as at 5.40 pm on Wednesday.

In a Facebook post on 10 June, Mr Ravi similarly said that his decision to represent them pro bono basis was based on the drivers being unable to “keep up with their installment payments” for the “small fee” he had charged them. This is on top of the other pro-bono cases he and his team have already taken on.

Separately, Mr Ravi in his Facebook post today said that the High Court trial for the case is slated to commence in September.

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