Unions and their duty of care – what is the standard, and when does it exist? Langley v GMB & Ors [2020] EWHC 3619 (QB)

Trade Unions have been a part of the fabric of employment and labour disputes in Britain for centuries. But what duty of care do they owe their members? This was the question considered by Mrs Justice Stacey in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court recently, when ruling on a claim of negligence in relation to a settlement agreement. The claim was brought by Mr Paul Langley, formerly employed by Birmingham City Council (‘the Council’), and the defendants were the GMB, and the firm of solicitors which they had instructed to represent Mr Langley.

The background to Langley v GMB & Ors [2020] EWHC 3619 (QB)

Mr Langley had worked as a binman for the Council for many years, during which time he was an active and enthusiastic member of the GMB. During 2014, the Council instituted a ban on overtime, which resulted in financial pressure for many union members, in some cases to the tune of £600pcm.

In another unpopular decision, at the end of 2013 the Council had introduced a charge for garden waste at £35 per year. This was lambasted by the press, and resulted in many local residents taking matters into their own hands and fly tipping or leaving their garden waste out over the city. In order to deal with the accumulated garden waste, the Council arranged for two special overtime sessions in which the binmen would collect and take it away.

Mr Langley contacted the local media, which resulted in a front-page story and also a radio interview. He was clearly irked by the way the Council had been treating union members, pulling and re-instating overtime “when it suits”. As a result of his interviews, Mr Langley was suspended.

The negotiation

The GMB’s fulltime officer, Ms Gill Ogilvie, represented Mr Langley at the investigation, and considered that he had a weak position. She advised that the best course would be to prolong the negotiation to build his pension privileges, but eventually to look for some sort of exit package, as she considered it unlikely that the Council would reinstate Mr Langley.

After a protracted set of negotiations, Mr Langley was offered a year of pay tax-free, as well as 12 weeks’ notice. Ms Ogilvie considered the deal to be the very best offer which Mr Langley could hope to get, and so, with his agreement, the GMB passed instruction to their solicitors Trade Union Law. The relevant formalities were undertaken, and Mr Langley secured his package by signing a settlement agreement.

The claim

Mr Langley, in 2016, began to have second thoughts about having left the Council, and issues claims against the GMB and his solicitors. The claim was that the GMB ought not to have pressured him into signing his settlement agreement, and should have advised an interim payment application in the Employment Tribunal.

Stacey J considered that, although union representatives had strongly encouraged Mr Langley to seriously consider the agreement that was being offered, this did not amount to pressuring or bullying him, not least because many of them were his friends. She ruled that the GMB had represented him well, and that the standard they were to be held to was that of an ordinary trade union representing its members.

In relation to the Employment Tribunal point, Stacey J indicated that Mr Langley would have a weak case, as his disclosures to the local media would not count as protected disclosures, so he would not be covered by whistleblowing legislation.

The case was dismissed.

Our lawyers’ comments on the case of Langley v GMB & Ors [2020] EWHC 3619 (QB)

Chris Hadrill, Partner in the employment team at Redmans, commented on the case: “This case shows that employees must give careful consideration to settlement agreements before deciding to enter into them (or not, as the case may be), as once the decision is made to accept a settlement agreement they are very difficult to ‘reverse out of’. Employees who have been offered settlement agreements should take prompt advice from specialist employment solicitors so that they have a good understanding of their options.”

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2020/3619.html