M. Ravi tells High Court judge to 'disqualify herself' from hearing bus drivers' suit against SBS Transit

The lawsuit comes after a dispute between bus drivers and the operator over overtime pay and working hours.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE - A four-day hearing into a lawsuit against transport operator SBS Transit was derailed shortly after it started on Monday (Nov 22).

The lawsuit comes after a dispute between bus drivers and the operator over overtime pay and working hours.

Voices were raised as lawyer M. Ravi, who acts for the 13 bus drivers who have sued SBS, accused High Court judge Audrey Lim of being biased and demanded that she disqualify herself from hearing the case.

During the court proceedings, which was held via video conference, Mr Ravi also called SBS' lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, a "clown" while they were discussing administrative matters.

Mr Ravi said that he and his client, Mr Chua Qwong Meng, would be "discharging" themselves and that there was a breach of the right to a fair trial.

When Justice Lim asked if Mr Chua was withdrawing his case, Mr Ravi replied: "He's withdrawing not in terms of the normal withdrawal. He does not want to participate any more in this unlawful proceedings."

Mr Ravi added that he would be asking "Dr Mahathir" for help as 80 per cent of the drivers are Malaysian and that he would be filing a case to the International Court of Justice.

The case was adjourned to next Monday for Justice Lim to hear Mr Ravi's formal application to discharge himself.

The 13 workers, who filed suits in 2019 and last year against SBS, claim that they had been made to work without a rest day each week and that they were also underpaid for overtime work.

In June, Justice Lim said the case involved important questions of law that would affect a larger class of workers in Singapore, and allowed the case to be transferred to be heard in the High Court.

The questions involve the interpretation of provisions in the Employment Act relating to whether a rest day can be scheduled such that an employee can be made to work for 12 consecutive days over a 14-day period, and whether bus drivers fall within the definition of employees providing "essential services".

Justice Lim said there would be potential ramifications on how such employment contracts are structured in terms of granting days off, computing overtime pay and determining work hours.

Mr Chua's suit is being heard as a test case. This means the court's decision and findings on Mr Chua's suit will be binding on all the plaintiffs.

On Monday, after the hearing started, both lawyers were given time to discuss issues relating to a particular witness, who had been subpoenaed by Mr Ravi. These include when the witness would be testifying.

Mr Ravi then told Mr Singh "don't be a clown, just email" - meaning that he wanted the details sent in an email - and said he wanted to go to the toilet.

When Justice Lim returned to the video call, Mr Singh told her that Mr Ravi had called him a clown and that they were not able to discuss the matter.

When the judge asked if this was true, Mr Ravi denied it and raised his voice, asking the judge if she was interrogating him.

Mr Ravi also accused Mr Singh of preventing him from "answering nature's call".

After a while, Mr Chua, who was physically at Mr Ravi's office, appeared on the video call to begin his testimony.

Mr Ravi then disappeared from view and loud voices could be heard over the video feed.

Mr Singh then told the court that his colleague, Mr Timothy Lin, who was at Mr Ravi's office, had been asked to leave and that a police report was being made against him.

The senior counsel explained that he had written to Mr Ravi on Nov 18 to say he would be sending a representative to sit in while Mr Chua gives evidence, and that Mr Ravi did not disagree.

Mr Ravi said Mr Lin's presence was "very shocking" and a breach of privileged information as documents are laid out in the room.

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Justice Lim explained that Mr Lin's presence was to ensure that Mr Chua's evidence is being given without notes, and that Mr Ravi could also have someone sitting in at Mr Singh's office when SBS' witnesses are testifying.

She said this has been done before without anyone objecting.

Justice Lim gave Mr Ravi two options: Have Mr Lin be in the room behind Mr Chua where he cannot see the documents or set up a camera to show that nobody else was in the room with Mr Chua.

Mr Ravi replied: "Your direction is wrong. I'm applying to you to disqualify yourself. You are biased because you asked Mr Singh's lawyer to come to my office."

When Justice Lim declined to recuse herself, Mr Ravi said he would be filing a notice of appeal.

When she asked the Mandarin interpreter to explain the situation to Mr Chua, Mr Ravi continued talking, causing the judge to ask him not to interrupt.

Mr Ravi replied: "You are not above me."

Justice Lim said: "I'm aware we are all human beings."

Mr Ravi then told the judge that he was discharging himself.

"Mr Chua doesn't trust any lawyer in Singapore," he said. "I'm not participating in this proceedings. You can pass whatever judgment you want. I'm retiring soon."

Justice Lim then gave Mr Ravi some time to talk to Mr Chua.

When the hearing resumed, Mr Ravi said: "I would like to discharge ourselves from this case... My client said he doesn't have faith in the system."

He said the proceedings have been "irreversibly tainted" and that there was a breach of the right to a fair trial.

When the judge said she would read the written submissions relating to Mr Ravi's application to discharge himself over the weekend, Mr Ravi added he was bipolar and was handling many cases.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.