Certain key workers whose jobs are vital to the proper functioning of the Government are denied the right to take industrial action afforded to everyone else. Prison officers are amongst them and, in a guideline decision, the High Court took a robust approach in prioritising the needs of the state over individual interests.
The case took place against the background of heavy cuts in prison funding that had resulted in the number of prison officers being reduced by about a third. Assaults and incidents of violence had increased and officers had been placed under great pressure, feeling diminished and undervalued in their work.
In those circumstances, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) had issued a circular to its members which, amongst other things, stated that they should only attend their workplace during contracted hours, eschew voluntary tasks and embark on a course of withdrawal from an overtime scheme.
The POA argued that the circular did no more than encourage its members to stick to the letter of their contracts. However, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) argued that it amounted to a breach of Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which enshrines the ban on prison officers taking industrial action.
In upholding the MoJ’s arguments, the Court found that the circular amounted to an inducement to prison officers to withdraw services that they were contractually obliged to provide. On a true interpretation of the Act, they were precluded from withdrawing any services that they had provided before the circular was issued.
The POA argued that the purpose of the circular was to bring management to the negotiating table. However, the Court found that it had induced members to commit breaches of discipline that would be likely to generate a risk to the safety of both prisoners and staff. In the circumstances, the Court granted the MoJ declaratory relief, reflecting its decision, and issued a permanent injunction against the POA.