Case - Ministry of Justice v. Prison Officers Association

(2008) IRLR 380, Queen's Bench Division - John Hendy QC, Rebecca Tuck
There had been no inequitable conduct on the part of the Ministry of Justice where it had departed from the recommendation of a pay review board on the grounds of affordability, and it was therefore entitled to an injunction ordering that the Prison Officers Association comply with the terms of an agreement that prohibited it from engaging in industrial action.

The claimant Ministry of Justice (J) sought the continuation of an injunction prohibiting the defendant Prison Officers Association (P) from inducing, authorising or supporting any form of industrial action by its members. J and P had entered into a procedural agreement that provided, among other things, that P would not authorise industrial action in relation to any dispute. A pay review body, which was constituted to examine the rates of pay to be applied to the prison service, subsequently recommended that prison officers be given a pay increase of 2.5 per cent. The Government had previously stated that, although the recommendations of the review body could not be binding, they would only be departed from in exceptional circumstances, one of which was on the grounds of affordability. J decided to implement the pay increase in two stages, which meant an overall annual rise of 1.9 per cent in the first year. A witness statement made on behalf of P gave the reasons for its decision to stage the pay award, at least one of which related to affordability. After a ballot was conducted on whether to accept the staged pay award, P called on its members to take strike action. The judge found that J was entitled to the injunction sought because it was obvious that P was in breach of the agreement. P submitted that, where public workers were prohibited from striking, international law required that "compensatory measures" be put into place, and that J had intentionally refused to provide such measures as recompense for the prohibition upon striking contained within the procedural agreement. P argued that the pay review board was not independent and its determination not binding, and consequently that P's inequitable conduct in withholding adequate compensatory measures was such that its claim for an injunction should be refused.

HELD: The evidence established that it had been known for a significant period of time that in deciding whether or not to accept a recommendation of the pay review board, affordability would be considered, and in the event that the award was deemed not affordable, that would be treated as an exceptional reason for departing from the recommendation. It followed that when the issue of affordability was taken into account in the decision to stage the pay award, J was acting in a manner that was consistent with the way it had said it would act. In those circumstances it was very difficult to see how J had acted in such a way that it should be deprived of an equitable remedy. There was simply no inequitable conduct on its part. Further, on any view, compensatory measures existed for the fact that the right to strike had been removed from prison officers. The measures were the very fact of the pay review board and the fact that it could make recommendations to J in respect of pay. P's complaint, therefore, was not that there were no compensatory measures but that they were insufficient, in that J could depart from the review board's findings if it considered it appropriate to do so. Even if the court proceeded on the basis that there had been a failure to provide sufficient compensatory measures, it did not follow that that failure amounted to such conduct in the context of the case that relief should be withheld. In any event, the court was far from satisfied that P had established that the compensatory measures were insufficient. Regard also had to be had to the consequences of a future strike. In those circumstances, there was a very strong public interest in providing a remedy to J to restrain a breach of contract by P. J had established its entitlement to the injunction that it sought, and P had advanced no reason for a contrary view save for its allegation of inequitable conduct, which was rejected.

Judgment for claimant.
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