Breen v Amalgamated Engineering Union

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
Judgment Date28 January 1971
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
Date28 January 1971
Patrick Adair Sreen
Analgamated Engineering Union (Now Known as Analgamated Engineering and Foundry Workers Union)
Victor Townsend, Arthur Blizard, John Banks, James McPadyn, A. Short, Alan Cobb, William Yairey, H.G. Smith, Cyril Parton

[1971] EWCA Civ J0128-1


The Master of the Rolls (Lord Denning),

Lord Justice Ednund Davies and

Lord Justice Megaw.

In The Supreme Court of Judicature

Court of Appeal

Appeal by plaintiff from judgment of Mr. Justice Cusack on 13th February, 1970.

Mr. ALAN CAMPBELL, and Mr. R.A. ROSEN (instructed by Messrs. Stitt & Co., agents for Mr. Rupert Martin of Southampton) appeared on behalf of the Plaintiff Appellant.

Mr. RALPH GIBSON, Q.C., and Mr. A. IRVINE (instructed by Messrs. M. H. Thompson) appeared on behalf of the Respondent Defendants.


This case raises a new point in the law of trade unions. Mr. Breen was elected by his fellow workers as a shop steward. The District Committee refused to approve his appointment. They did so for a reason which was entirely erroneous and highly prejudicial to him. He seeks a declaration that their refusal was invalid and he also claims damages from the trade union.




There are two leading characters. On the one side there is Mr. Breen himself. He is now a man aged 50. He is a mechanical fitter. He has been employed for many years at the Esso Oil Refinery at Fawley. Time after time the Judge paid tribute to him. He had the respect of many, if not all, of his fellow workers. He has had strong backing from union members on the shop floor. Ever since 1954, year after year, with few exceptions, they have elected him as their shop steward. He holds that it is important to honour agreements made between management and men, not only in the letter, but also in the spirit. When other shop stewards determined on one occasion to break such an agreement, he stood out against them. "He showed" said the Judge, "considerable moral courage on a matter of principle". He is a sincereman who stands by his beliefs but is not aggressive about them. He is a man of independent thought. He does not contribute to the political levy of the union, but that should not be taken against him. The Judge accepted his evidence in its entirety.


On the other side there is Mr. Townsend. He is a permanent official of the union. He is the district secretary for the Southampton District which is very industrialised and extends for several miles around Southampton. He works full time for theunion with his office in Southampton. The District Committee consists of working men who are elected annually. They come from all round but none at this time appears to have come from Fawley.


Mr. Townsend is held in high regard in some quarters, for he is a Justice of the Peace. But he did not impress the Judge favourably. he was "inflexible", "ungenerous" and "obstinate". At some points the Judge rejected his evidence outright. The Judge was especially critical of Mr. Townsend of an occasion in 1963 when Mr. Breen was unfortunately, by an oversight, in arrear with his subscriptions to the union. Mr. Townsend took an unjustifiable step. He suggested to the District Committee that Mr. Breen should be suspended from his job with the Esso Refinery Company: whereupon the District Committee passed a resolution to that effect and asked the Esso Company to suspend him. Such a thing was outside the powers of the District Committee altogether, and Mr. Townsend knew it. It was, said the Judge, "a piece of something which approached very near intimidation: it was discreditable". Fortunately for Mr. Breen, the Esso Refinery Company refused the request. The incident did Mr. Breen no harm, said the Judge, "beyond giving him a nasty shock and a few days anxiety".


So much for the two leading characters. Now for the two events which produced this action.




In the first half of 1958 a charge was levelled against Mr. Breen. One of the stewards, who did not see eye to eye with Mr. Breen, accused him of misappropriating union funds. It was a trumpery charge. The allegation was that many months before, inJune 1957, Mr. Breen had received three sums of 6s 6d. each to be paid over to three shop stewards and, instead of paying them over, had pocketed them himself - in all 19s 6d. The accusation was reported to the District Committee, who referred it to a sub-committee. Mr. Townsend attended the subcommittee as secretary. The sub-committee rejected the charge. They recommended that the accusation be withdrawn. The District Committee accepted the recommendation. Mr. Townsend himself notified Mr. Breen of the result. The effect was (as Mr. Town-send acknowledged at the trial) that Mr. Breen was acquitted of the charge without a stain on his character. The chairman told the Judge that there was a complete end to the suggestion of dishonesty.


It is significant that, at the trial of the present case, none of Mr. Breen's accusers gave evidence. The Judge made this comment on them: "The absence of these three gentlmen, even if it has not produced a situation like 'Hamlet' without the Prince of Denmark, has at least deprived the production of some of the principal members of the supporting cast". The trial proceeded on the basis that Mr. Breen was entirely innocent.




The second event was in December 1965. Mr. Breen was elected by his fellow workers as their shop steward for the coming year. It was, however, subject toapproval by the District Committee - Rule 13(21) says that:

"Shop stewards elected by members are subject to approval by the District Committee and shall not function until such approval is given".


On 9th December, 1965, the District Committee met. In previous years they had approved his election. This year they rejectedhim. There was little discussion at the meeting, says the Judge, but general agreement that Mr. Breen was not a person who, in view of his history, could be approved by the Committee as a shop steward. On 18th December 1965, Mr. Breen wrote a letter to Mr. Townsend protesting at the Committee's decision:

"I wish to protest most strongly at their decision to disqualify me and would ask them to reconsider their decision. No reason has been given to me for this decision".


On 30th December 1965, the District Committee met again. There was again little discussion. They affirmed their previous decision and told Mr. Townsend to write to Mr. Breen and tell him the reason. On 31st December 1965, Mr. Townsend wrote to Mr. Breen. It is the most important letter in the case:

"It was not the intention of His District Committee to notify you of the reasons why, as they thought you would be able to recollect your past history on this matter, but as you desire to know the-reasons I have been instructed to inform you of them and they are as follows:-

You resigned as shop steward during 1958 arising out of an accusation that you received shop steward's fees in 1957 and you failed to give same to the stewards concerned. Owing to the fact that you resigned, no further action was taken".


I need not refer to the other reasons. They are not pertinent for present purposes. Suffice it to say that that first reason was wholly wrong. Mr. Breen had not resigned. He had been acquitted of the charge. Yet here was a statement which carried the clear implication - the Judge says so - that the plaintiff had been dishonest in 1957. At the trial Mr. Townsend sought to explain it away, but the Judge disbelieved him. He was "evasive and untrue he had retained in his own mind since 1958 a belief that the plaintiff was really guilty".


On 6th January, 1966, the District Committee met again. Inaccordance with the usual practice, the letter was read out at the beginning of the meeting. The Chairman pointed out that the reason given was wrong. (He had been the chairman of the sub-committee in 1958 and so knew it was wrong). But the Committee decided that, as the letter had been sent, they must stand by it. The Judge made this acid comment on the Committee: "Nobody had the courtesy or the decency to suggest that a letter of correction and apology should be sent to the plaintiff". Mr. Breen tried to speak on the telephone to Mr. Townsend, but he was always out. Eventually Mr. Breen did manage to speak to him, and said, "Gossip has got all round the refinery about the money accusation". Mr. Townsend replied tersely: "You had the money, Brother". Mr. Townsend denied that he said those words. The Judge was definite on it: "I believe Mr. Breen. I do not believe Mr. Townsend".


Mr. Breen was naturally very upset by this charge of misappropriation being made against him. He went to solicitors. They wrote a letter to Mr. Townsend seeking a withdrawal of the charge. Mr. Townsend did not even reply. Mr. Breen wanted to bring proceedings for defamation. But he could not get legal aid (legal aid is not available for actions brought wholly or partly for defamation). So he decided to challenge the decision of the District Committee. On 5th May, 1966, his solicitors wrote to Mr. Townsend asking for the names of the members of the Committee who made the decision against him. But these were not given. It was over a year before his solicitors got the names. Then they only got some of them, because they could not find out the others. Then on 10th July, 1967, Mr. Breen brought this action against the union, Mr. Townsend and some members of theCommittee. In the course of the proceedings the defendants did, at long last, admit that Mr. Breen was completely innocent of the alleged misappropriation and that the reason which they gave for rejecting him was wrong. But, nevertheless, Mr. Breen failed in the action. He wanted to appeal but allowed the time to...

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