After the state's recent court defeat, the obligation for commercial bus line operators to provide free transport to preschoolers and disabled people will be removed from the law. However, this does not mean that the right to free bus travel will disappear and an agreement is currently being sought between the parties involved, Minister of Economic Affairs Riina Sikkut (SDE) said on Vikeraadio's "Uudis+" program.
"(The ruling) gives the impression that children and people with disabilities should not be able to use transport free of charge. However, this is not the case. Nobody thinks it is fair for children or disabled people to have to pay full price for a ticket. Everybody thinks it's fair to provide transport and to do it more cheaply. The ruling by the European Court of Justice said, that we cannot legally impose such an obligation on those carriers that we do not subsidize. We have to remove that obligation from the law, but that does not mean the right to free travel (for disabled people and preschoolers) should stop," said Sikkut.
Previously, the parent company of Estonian bus lines Sebe and Lux Express took the state to court over the issue, arguing that they should not be obliged to transport preschoolers and disabled people free of charge without also receiving state compensation.
The case reached the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which ruled in favor of the bus companies.
In December, Sikkut sent a draft bill for approval to remove the obligation for commercial intercity bus services to transport preschoolers and disabled people free of charge. However, it now remains unclear how exactly children and people with disabilities will be provided with free or subsidized travel.
Sikkut said, that going forward, several options are under consideration. However, the final decision would have to be agreed upon by all parties involved.
The minister emphasized, that while bus line operators might offer free transportation as a gesture of goodwill, such a move cannot be expected due to the costs they would incur if they were to do so.
"(We need to decide) how to compensate (bus line operators) for these costs and what a fair amount compensation is, as well as a mechanism that would not be burdensome for preschoolers, disabled people or for the operators. /.../ As this is a new issue for us, no one has a ready-made solution," the minister said.
Currently, the state does not have an IT system in place, through which the process of retroactively reimbursing fares could be started.
"Now we need to change the law and agree on the reimbursement procedure," Sikkut said.
"However, the reimbursement must be linked to the amount (of people) transported (by the bus lines). What the rate of compensation will be is a matter all of its own, which is being decided with the four operators in the Estonian courts. We don't know in advance what the decision (in that case) will be," Sikkut said.
The matter to which Sikkut was referring concerns the compensation due to be paid retroactively to the bus line operators for having already transported preschoolers and disabled people free of charge.
The amount being claimed in the court case is €5 million.
As long as the current law remains in force and the new bill is yet to pass into law, interest on these payments will start to accumulate, as soon as the court ruling has been delivered. It also seems unlikely that the new bill will be passed into law before the upcoming Riigikogu elections.
"At the moment, things are at the discussion phase. Nothing will change overnight," Sikkut said.
What happens in the two to three years between the court ruling, adoption of the draft into law and the eventual implementation of a suitable procedure and IT system to ensure everything runs smoothly is also not yet clear, according to Sikkut.
One possible solution is that the Ministry of Social Affairs will begin providing transport ticket subsidies for preschoolers and disabled people during that period.
According to Sikkut, the aim is to agree a solution with the bus companies as soon as possible. However, the minister conceded that the companies will clearly not transport children and disabled people free of charge simply as a matter of goodwill.
"It is possible to all agree on how we will make the rules. We can't expect (bus line operators) to provide this transport (free of charge) for a long period of time without compensation from the state," Sikkut said.
Editor: Michael Cole