Union, officials enjoy immunity from defamation suits, affirms apex court

PUTRAJAYA: Trade unions and their members cannot be sued for defamation by employers if any statements are made in the course of carrying out legitimate union activities.

This follows today’s Federal Court’s decision to refuse a leave application to appeal against a Court of Appeal ruling which favoured the National Union of Bank Employees (NUBE).

The applicant, Maybank, had filed 11 legal questions to obtain leave for the Federal Court to hear the merit of five cases.

A three-man bench chaired by Chief Justice Raus Sharif said Section 22 of the Trade Unions Act 1959 was clear and required no further interpretations.

The Court of Appeal has made a finding of fact that there was a trade dispute. It will not make any difference if the applicant cannot overcome Section 22, he said.

The court also ordered the bank to pay RM20,000 in costs to the five respondents.

The Court of Appeal had previously held that there is no ambiguity in the construction of Section 22(1) of the Trade Unions Act and a defamation suit against a trade union and its officers, alleged to have been committed by or on behalf of the trade union, shall not be entertained by any court.

The case arose from five defamation suits that were brought by Maybank against NUBE, its officers and members due to the publication of a flyer and two articles on the union website.

The suits were filed separately against NUBE’s officers Mohd Faisal Hussin, Nur Rasidah Jamaludin, Sharifuddin Hassan and T Sethupathy at the High Courts in Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and Shah Alam.

The bank had also filed another suit against NUBE and its general-secretary J Solomon in Kuala Lumpur for publishing the articles.

Maybank won their suits against Faisal, Nur Rasidah and Sharifuddin, and were awarded damages by the High Court of between RM30,000 and RM100,000.

Maybank lost its cases against Sethupathy, NUBE and Solomon.

The losing parties had appealed to the Court of Appeal and all appeals were heard together.

The appeals resulted in the ruling that NUBE and its officers were conferred with absolute immunity from the tort of libel and victory for the union and its officers in all five appeals in the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal had also held that the flyer and the articles in the NUBE website were published pursuant to a trade dispute that was in existence between NUBE and Maybank at the material time.

Maybank then filed five separate applications for leave to appeal to the Federal Court against all five decisions of the Court of Appeal.

Solomon welcomed the Federal Court’s decision, saying that it protected the fundamental rights of trade unions and its officers and members in fighting to safeguard the rights and interests of workers in the country.

This is a landmark decision for the development of the trade union movement in this country to function independently without fear or favour, he said.

Lawyers Ambiga Sreenevasan and Alex De Silva represented NUBE and its officers while counsel Cecil Abraham, Thavalingam Thavarajah, S Rutheran and Sunil Abraham appeared for Maybank.

Source: Malaysian Trades Union Congress