Global brokerage giant Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT) has failed in a legal bid to stop its former staff from joining a rival firm or block the rival from hiring them, in what is believed to be the first such case in Singapore.
Jardine had sought the two interim court orders, pending a full trial to hear its suit against four senior former staff, rival firm Howden Insurance Brokers as well as employment agency Huntington Search Partners, which purportedly helped Howden hire the four staff.
Justice Choo Han Teck held yesterday that the court orders were not justified, noting insufficient evidence on whether the former employees had misused confidential information or if there was a real risk of misuse in the new firm.
Quoting a Hong Kong judgment, Judge Choo said there was nothing wrong in a group of employees opting "in concert" to leave their employer for new pastures.
He added: "The law has always looked with favour upon the efforts of employees to advance themselves, provided that they do not steal or use the secrets of their former employer."
Jardine succeeded in getting two other interim court orders, which barred the employee defendants from disclosing confidential information belonging to Jardine and from luring other staff to leave it.
Jardine, which has one of the largest international broker networks in the world, operates in 39 countries and has more than 10,000 employees.
Represented by Senior Counsel Ang Cheng Hock, it is seeking damages for alleged conspiracy to injure, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty.
It alleged that in April last year, then Jardine managing director Goh Chye Huat began discussions with Huntington, and the resignations of 17 employees followed. All joined rival firm Howden later.
Jardine argued that the move by its four former senior employees created an unfair competitive advantage for Howden to "springboard" ahead, causing further loss to Jardine.
But lawyers Choo Zheng Xi and Gan Kam Yuin cited Hong Kong and Australian judgments, among other things, in defence of the former Jardine employees.
Justice Choo said in his written grounds: "Professional insurance agents and brokers whose careers lay in the service of the insurance industry do not have many options should they wish to leave their employers.
"All employees are entitled to leave their employer subject to terms of notice in their employment contract."
Yesterday, Howden said through its lawyer Chew Kei-Jin: "It has been, and it remains, Howden's case that it had done nothing wrong in recruiting the 17 JLT employees.
"Howden is free to employ JLT employees who resign or have resigned to join Howden."