Departments win Court of Appeal challenge over ‘check-off’ damages

Civil service’s biggest union vows to take case stemming from coalition government reforms to Supreme Court
The Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the Court of Appeal is based. Photo: R/DV/RS/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

22 May 2023

The Court of Appeal has sided with three government departments in their dispute with the civil service’s biggest union over compensation for funding lost through the coalition government’s controversial “check-off” reforms.

PCS could be denied damages running into millions of pounds as a result of the ruling, handed down on 19 May. It vowed to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.

In 2014, the coalition government began encouraging departments to stop the practice of automatically deducting staff members’ union subscriptions from their monthly salaries. Although the policy was abandoned in 2016, PCS’s membership dropped by tens of thousands.

The union successfully challenged the Department for Work and Pensions for ending check-off without the consent of its staff. It secured an out-of-court damages settlement from the department worth £3m in 2019.

PCS went on to secure High Court wins against the Home Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and HM Revenue and Customs. However, they chose not to settle with PCS and took the decision to the Court of Appeal.

Last week’s judgement – which was reached by a two-to-one majority – says that although the Home Office, Defra and HMRC breached staff contracts, those contracts were not intended to be enforceable by PCS.

PCS said it was disappointing that a “narrow point of interpretation” was blocking the union from claiming damages it had “evidently suffered” as a result of the coalition government’s attempts to change check-off, which were overseen by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

“This is by no means the end of the matter,” the union said in a statement. “PCS has applied for permission to appeal the judgment to the Supreme Court.

“We will continue to try to hold the employer to account for the damages it has caused by this unlawful act.

“Our legal team advises that an appeal to the Supreme Court has good prospects of success.”

PCS closed 2022 with 191,289 members, according to the union's most recent annual report. Membership in 2010 was close to 300,000 and the union lost 37,000 members in 2015 alone.

The decline in membership only began to turn around in 2019, after hitting a low of around 176,000.

The union said growth in membership had “accelerated” during balloting for its current wave of strike action and had reached 193,000 as of last month.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Civil service spending on temporary staff hit £7.4bn last year

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