High Court Rules on lawfulness of industrial action by the Prison Officers’ Association

28 July, 2017

The High Court has clarified the meaning of s.127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in Ministry of Justice v The Prison Officers’ Association [2017] EWHC 1839 (QB) which was handed down on 19 July 2017, holding that conduct proscribed by the section includes the withdrawal of “voluntary services”.

On 27 February 2017, the Prison Officers’ Association (the POA) issued a Circular which instructed members to withdraw from “voluntary tasks” until further notice. The voluntary roles included such matters as the provision of first aid and the taking of assessments to determine whether prisoners are at risk of suicide or self-harm. The Secretary of State argued, amongst other things, that s.127 creates a new statutory tort and the withdrawal of such services falls within it. Furthermore, a nationwide policy of withdrawing from activities such as these gave rise to a risk to the safety of prisoners, which also engages s.127. The POA argued that the only conduct that could be prohibited by the section was conduct that the prison officers were contractually obliged to undertake.

Mr Justice Jay granted declaratory and, unusually, final injunctive relief restraining the POA’s members from withholding their “services as a prison officer”, or from conducting any action that would be “likely to put at risk the safety of any person”. This is the first time in a final hearing that the Court has opined on the meaning of s.127(1A) and the Court’s analysis is significant:

(1)    The Court held that a withdrawal from voluntary tasks amounted to an unlawful inducement to withhold services and also constituted a breach of discipline;

(2)    The Court found that the natural and ordinary meaning of the phrase “withholding of services as a prison officer” was any services carried out by a prison officer including those which s/he was not contractually obliged to perform;

(3)    The Court determined that the concerted withdrawal of services at short notice would be likely to put at risk the safety of any person; and

(4)    Lastly, the Court found that no question of any implied obligation to act in good faith arose since the matters that were the subject of the withdrawal fell outwith the prison officers’ contracts of employment

Jane Russell (led by Daniel Stilitz QC) acted for the Secretary of State, instructed by the Government Legal Service. Read the judgment in full here: https://www.lawtel.com/UK/Searches/1904/AC0155273