Trade unions may feel strongly that their members’ rights are being trampled on. However, they need to ensure that they are following the law, or they will face costly consequences. The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) discovered that when it was fined a six-figure sum for inducing or supporting industrial action in breach of a High Court injunction.
Because of the particularly important and sensitive role performed by prison officers, Section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 forbids anyone from inducing them to take industrial action. Following a contested hearing, that statutory ban was backed up by a permanent injunction. This injunction restrained the POA from inducing, authorising or supporting any form of industrial action by any prison officer.
In breach of that order, the POA had induced national strike action by its members. It had also supported industrial action at one particular prison. The Secretary of State for Justice responded by launching proceedings on the basis that the POA should be appropriately punished for its deliberate acts in contempt of court.
The POA argued in its defence that the injunction was too broad in its effect. This amounted to a violation of its and its members’ human rights, including the right to assemble freely. The outright ban on all forms of industrial action was discriminatory and exposed prison officers to degrading treatment. They were constantly exposed to serious and imminent danger, as violence was so rife in overcrowded prisons.
The Court acknowledged the challenges and dangers faced by prison officers and the POA’s important role in promoting good industrial relations. However, the Court had no power to disapply Section 127, which represents the will of Parliament. The POA’s human rights arguments afforded it no defence and it was and remained bound by the injunction, the terms of which it had deliberately disobeyed.
The POA’s plea that it was out of options, and effectively forced to breach the injunction, fell on fallow ground. There were many other ways short of industrial action in which it could protect and advance its members’ interests. In short, the POA had behaved as if it were above the law and had shown wilful defiance and literal contempt for a solemn court order. It was fined £210,000.