High Court nips prison action in bud

Roger Pearson reports on Home Office moves which put a stop to prison officers holding mass meetings over pay offers.

Once again the High Court has shown its ability to move at breakneck speed and, if necessary, to cut across the boundaries of the court divisions.

On 6 November, the Prison Officers Association (POA) rejected a 2.7 per cent pay offer. The association planned a series of mass meetings of its 28,000 members at some 135 prisons around the country to discuss the next move.

Called on 9 November, the meetings were scheduled to be held at 7.30am on 11 November.

However, on 10 November, with less than 24 hours to go, the Home Office gave notice to the prison officers that they were seeking an injunction banning the meetings, on the basis that they fell foul of the provisions of section 127 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

When both sides turned up for a hearing before a Queen's Bench judge in chambers though, the volume of business was such that the case looked unlikely to be heard.

That is when the boundary between the Queen's Bench and Chancery divisions blurred. The parties were sent to Court 40, where Chancery motions judge Mr Justice Ferris agreed to hear the application as a matter of urgency and, after a brief hearing, granted an injunction. He left it to the Prison Service to return to the Queen's Bench Division to issue its writ there.

Tony Marriott, the partner at Liverpool's Lees Lloyd & Whitley who handles the POA's legal affairs, said that although the case did not go as his clients had hoped, the speed at which it was handled illustrated the High Court's ability to move quickly. More than this though, he says that the case had a number of unusual features.

Mr Justice Ferris said Home Secretary Jack Straw had an arguable case that the Prison Service was justified in granting an order to ban the meeting, in the light of the damage that would be caused to it.

However, he went further and ordered the POA to send a circular to its members withdrawing the earlier call for meetings.

Preventative injunctions are not uncommon in employment circles, but "mandatory" injunctions, which order that not only should something not be done, but that positive steps must be taken to prevent it, are unusual.

Another unusual aspect of this case, says Marriott is that the POA is the only "union" against which an injunction of this nature could be granted.

He, like the members of the POA, has been quick to brand the moves as political.

The Labour Party, when in opposition, had opposed the very provisions used to ban the meetings. However, on this case, Jack Straw used the provisions the Labour Party had pledged to repeal to block the plans of prison officers.

During the application, Tess Gill, counsel for the prison officers, argued that the POA could not function as an association if it was not able to consult its members over pay negotiations, and accused the Prison Service of attempting to "sabotage" the legitimate aims of the prison officers.

However, despite claims by prison officers that the meetings had been timed for a period when the prisoners were still locked up and that there would be sufficient security, Mr Justice Ferris said he was satisfied that if the meetings took place, the damage to the prison service would be "immense".