Case Update: Long Kim Wing v LTX-Credence Singapore Pte Ltd [2017] SGHC 151 – employer liable for failing to conduct due inquiry before termination for cause / dismissal

Significance: The Singapore High Court held an employer liable for failing to conduct due inquiry before terminating or dismissing an employee for misconduct.

Although the employee was found to have indeed committed misconduct which justified his dismissal, the Court also found that the employer had breached its employment contract in failing to conduct due inquiry. Under the relevant clause in the contract, it was provided that:-

“The Company may after due inquiry dismiss without notice an employee on the grounds of misconduct inconsistent with the fulfilment of the express or implied conditions of his/her service.”

The Court then had to consider what constituted “due inquiry”. Although the clause was similar to s 14(1) of the Employment Act (Cap 91, 2009 Rev Ed), the employee did not rely on this section as the Act was not applicable to him. The Court then considered case law as well as the website of Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”) (http://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/termination-of-employment (accessed 17 April 2017)). The Court noted that under the subject of “Termination due to employee misconduct” and “Holding an inquiry”, the website states that the employee being investigated for misconduct should have the opportunity to present his case even though there is no prescribed procedure for conducting an inquiry.

At [161]-[162], the Court then opined that the phrase “due inquiry” means something more than just the making of inquiries and the conduct of an investigation. Otherwise the word “inquiry” alone would suffice. The phrase suggests some sort of process in which the employee concerned is informed about the allegation(s) and the evidence against him so that he has an opportunity to defend himself by presenting his position, with or without other evidence. While the website of the MOM does not have the force of law, its guide that the employee concerned should have the opportunity to present his case is a useful one. That accords with notions of justice and fairness especially since serious consequences may follow.  In order for an employee to be given an opportunity to present his case effectively, he must first be informed clearly what the case against him is. This includes the allegation(s) and the evidence against him. While “due inquiry” does not mandate any formal procedure to be undertaken, the more the informality the greater the danger that “due inquiry” was not undertaken. Accordingly, where no formal process was undertaken, the court should be more careful to ensure that the employee’s right is protected.

The Court thus found the employer liable for breaching its obligation to conduct due inquiry. The Court then applied Gunton v Richmond-Upon-Thames London Borough Council  [1980] 3 WLR 714, which entitled the employee his salary for the reasonable time it would have taken the employer to conduct “due inquiry”.

Unfortunately, the evidence adduced by the parties before the Court was scant on this point of how long the reasonable time would have been to conduct due inquiry.

Further,  the Court had some reservation as to whether the Defendant would also be obliged to give the Plaintiff an opportunity to address it on the consequences of his misconduct if it concluded that the misconduct was established. There was no evidence as to what human resource departments do or on the advantages and disadvantages of embarking on such a course of conduct. There was also no evidence or submission as to whether both liability and consequences could be addressed together in the same opportunity given to the Plaintiff or should be done separately: at [182].

The Court then found that the employer would not have required more than seven days, based on the chronology of events which transpired in this case.

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