Industrial relations

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Injunction - Interlocutory - Acts done in contemplation or furtherance of trade dispute

Metroline Travel Ltd and others v Unite: QBD (Mr Justice Supperstone): 27 June 2012

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The instant proceedings concerned a proposed strike by employees of the claimant bus companies following the refusal of a demand from the defendant trade union that its members be paid a £500 bonus for working during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The second claimant company was one of many private operators of buses for Transport for London (TfL). Section 219(4) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 protected a trade union from liability in tort in relation to actions based on, among other matters, the inducement of another to break his or her contract. However, that immunity was subject to a union having complied with certain statutory requirements. On 9 May 2012, the defendant gave notice to the claimants of its intention to hold a ballot for industrial action (the ballot notice). The ballot notice stated that the defendant intended ‘to send ballot papers to all members who are drivers; engineering grades and supervisory grades working on the TfL contracts either on a full-time or part-time basis employed at the Watford depot’. The ballot opened on 16 May and closed on 8 June. Thereafter the defendant notified the claimants of the result which was in favour of strike action.

On 15 June, the defendant gave notice to the claimants of strike action commencing on 22 June (the strike notice). The strike notice also referred to members working on TfL contracts either on a full- or part-time basis. The claimants sought injunctive relief to restrain the defendant from inducing its relevant members to breach their contracts of employment with the claimants by taking part in industrial action. Notice of their intention to apply for interim relief was given to the defendant on 21 June. The claimants contended that the defendant had failed to comply with the requirements of part V of the act and that, consequently, industrial action called pursuant to the ballot was unlawful. In particular, the critical phrase used in each of the notices, namely ‘working on TfL contracts either on a full- or part-time basis’, was imprecise and incapable of being used so as to permit the companies readily to deduce the statutory information. The claimants rejected the suggestion that there had been any delay or conduct by them which had disentitled them to the relief sought. The application would be allowed.

It was established law that the ­purpose of both sets of notice provisions under the act was to enable an employer to know which part or parts of its workforce were being invited to take industrial action so that it could best prepare for such action if it took place. Section 221 of the act required the court on an application for an interim injunction to have regard to the likelihood of statutory immunity being established at trial (see [23], [54] of the judgment).

In the instant case, the claimants could not readily deduce from the information supplied in the ballot notices: (i) the total number of employees concerned; (ii) the categories of employee to which the employees concerned belonged and the number of the employees concerned in each of those categories; and: (iii) the workplaces at which the employees concerned worked and the number of them who worked at each of those workplaces, in accordance with section 226A(2C) of the act. It was not clear from the ballot notices whether the phrase ‘working on TfL contracts either on a full- or part-time basis’ included employees who ‘might be expected’ to work on such contracts, or those who were ‘associated with’ TfL work or those working on TfL contracts whether ‘directly’ or ‘indirectly’.

The likelihood was that the defendant would fail to establish at trial that it had complied with the statutory notification requirements. The same was true in respect of the strike notice. If that was so, the defendant would not have complied with the statutory requirements, as a result of which it had no immunity from suit. In respect of relief, there had been no delay or conduct by the claimants that would warrant the withholding of the relief sought. Further, the balance of convenience lay firmly in favour of granting relief (see [56], [58], [61], [65]-[67] of the judgment). The claimants were entitled to interim injunctions in the terms set out in the order (see [68] of the judgment).

Andrew Stafford QC (instructed by Eversheds) for the claimants; John Hendy QC and Michael Ford (instructed by Thompsons Solicitors) for the defendant.

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