South Wales Miners' Federation v Glamorgan Coal Company

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date1905
CourtHouse of Lords

Contract - Procuring Breach of Contract - Cause of Action- Interference with Legal Right - Malice - Justification.

Procuring a breach of contract is an actionable wrong unless there be justification for interfering with the legal right.

Miners employed in collieries without giving notice to their employers and in breach of their contracts abstained from working on certain days upon the direction or order of a federation of the miners given by their executive council. The federation and council acted honestly without malice or ill-will towards the employers, and with the object only of keeping up the price of coal by which the wages were regulated:—

Held, that an action for damages lay by the employers against the federation and its officers, no justification for their action being shewn.

The decision of the Court of Appeal, [1903] 2 K. B. 545, affirmed.

THE Glamorgan Coal Company, Limited, and seventy-three other plaintiffs, owners of collieries in South Wales, brought this action against the South Wales Miners' Federation, its trustees and officers, and several members of its executive council, claiming damages for wrongfully and maliciously procuring and inducing workmen in the collieries to break their contracts of service with the plaintiffs, and alternatively for wrongfully and maliciously conspiring to do so. Evidence of the facts proved at the trial before Bigham J. without a jury is set forth in the report of his judgmentF1, and the principal facts are stated by Lord James in this House. Briefly the case was as follows. The federation (which was registered as a trade union) was formed (inter alia) to consider trade and wages, to protect the workmen and regulate the relation between them and employers, and to call conferences. The wages were paid upon a sliding scale agreement, rising and falling with the price of coal. In November, 1900, the council of the federation, fearing that the action of merchants and middlemen would reduce the price of coal and consequently the rate of wages, resolved to order a “stop-day” on November 9, and informed the workmen. This order was obeyed by over 100,000 men, who took a holiday and thereby broke their contracts of service. At a conference held on November 12 between delegates of the men and the council a resolution was passed authorizing the council to declare a general holiday at any time they might think it necessary for the protection of wages and of the industry generally. In October and November, 1901, the council (as Bigham J. found) ordered four stop-days for the same reason as before, and the men took a holiday on each of those days in breach of their contracts. Bigham J. found that the action of the federation was dictated by an honest desire to forward the interest of the workmen and was not in any sense prompted by a wish to injure the masters, between whom and the men there was no quarrel or ill-will; that having been requested by the men by the resolution of November 12, 1900, to advise and direct them as to when to stop work, the federation and its officers did to the best of their ability advise and direct the men honestly and without malice of any kind against the plaintiffs, and therefore had lawful justification or excuse for what they did. The learned judge gave judgment for the defendants. This decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal (Romer and Stirling L.JJ., Vaughan Williams L.J. dissenting), who entered judgment for the plaintiffs, the damages to be assessed.F2

Feb. 23, 24, 27, 28; March 2, 3. Rufus Isaacs, K.C., and S. T. Evans, K.C. (Bailhache, Holman Gregory, and Clement Edwards with them), for the appellants. The question is whether honest and bonâ fide advice and guidance given without malice or ill-will, upon request and in performance of a duty, is a justification for interfering with a contract. In Quinn v. LeathemF3 Lord Macnaghten says: “It is a violation of legal right to interfere with contractual relations recognised by law if there be no sufficient justification for the interference”; in other words, “no just cause or excuse.” The controversy turns on these words. It was the appellants' duty to advise the men, and the discharge of that duty constitutes good cause and excuse. There is no authority that the inducing, without malice, of a person to break a contract is an actionable wrong. In Lumley v. GyeF4 malice was assumed: there was knowledge of the contract and intention to injure, and these constitute malice. Defamation of character is primâ facie actionable, but if the occasion is privileged, there must be proof of express malice. The necessity of malice is admitted even by Crompton J. in Lumley v. GyeF4, though he was more adverse to the defendant than the other judges. There must be some limitation to the proposition that a man is liable for inducing to the breach of a contract, though the line has been differently drawn by different judges. In Bowen v. HallF5 the elements which went to prove malice were knowledge of the contract, desire on the defendant's part to obtain advantage at the plaintiff's cost, and wrong motive. But in Allen v. FloodF6 Lords Macnaghten, Herschell, and Shand reserved their opinions as to whether Lumley v. GyeF4, Bowen v. HallF5, and Temperton v. RussellF7 were rightly decided. Lord Watson also criticized those authorities with a note of disapproval, especially with regard to the importation of motive as an element. The tendency of opinion is in favour of the dissentient judgments of Coleridge J. in Lumley v. GyeF4 and of Lord Coleridge C.J. in Bowen v. Hall.F5 Even if one admits to the full the authority of Lumley v. GyeF4, and the two cases which adopted it, they are not applicable. The appellants' purpose was not to injure the respondents or to gain an advantage at their expense. It was to keep up the price of coal, not to punish the masters; and that makes all the difference. Thus the present case is exactly like Mogul Steamship Co. v. M'Gregor, Gow & Co.F8, in which Bowen L.J.'s judgment was expressly approved by this House. There, as Lord Hannen said, the defendants had no malicious or sinister intent against the plaintiffs. The appellants were discharging their duty to protect and advise the men in order to maintain the standard of wages, and they firmly believed and alleged that they were acting in the interest of the employers. It was a moral and social duty, such as that of a parent, a counsel, or a doctor to advise a child, a client, or a patient honestly and without ill-will or desire to injure. Moral duty is enough to constitute privilege: Jenoure v. DelmegeF9; Stuart v. Bell.F10 In Read v. Friendly Society of Operative StonemasonsF11 the purpose was to injure the plaintiff — to prevent his becoming a stonemason. So in Quinn v. LeathemF12 the direct purpose was to injure the plaintiff, and the new point was decided that a combination to induce others not to enter into a contract, if made without justification or excuse, is unlawful. But that has no application here. If there be just cause or excuse and no malice the act being lawful in itself is not made unlawful by its being done in combination.

Upjohn, K.C., and Montague Lush, K.C. (Trevor Lewis with them), for the respondents. It is a startling proposition that the existence of a moral or social duty is a justification for procuring men to break their contracts. There has been no attempt to define the duty or to explain how it arose, still less to shew that there has been a performance of that duty. The appellants exceeded their powers under the rules. It was not a case of persuasion, but of coercion, and those who failed to obey orders were treated as blacklegs. The story of Quinn v. LeathemF13 was repeated. In Lord Lindley's words, “What may begin as peaceable persuasion ….” becomes “peremptory ordering with threats open or covert of very unpleasant consequences to those who are not persuaded.” The case is as far as possible removed from the analogies suggested of a parent, or counsel, or a doctor. Even in those relations advice might be actionable, and the question would be for the jury.

Advice had little to do with this matter. There was no spontaneous action on the part of the men. They were stirred up by the federation, which advised a “stop-day” and then ordered a mass meeting to enforce it. Every judge except Bigham J. has agreed with Crompton J. in Lumley v. GyeF14, that a person commits an actionable wrong who “with notice interrupts the relation subsisting between master and servant.” It was held in this House in Quinn v. LeathemF15 that the gist of the action in Lumley v. GyeF14 was not malice, but “wrongfully and unlawfully” enticing a servant from his master's service. Malice depends not on the motive but on the illegal character of the act objectively considered. In Lord Watson's words in Allen v. FloodF16, it consists in “knowingly procuring an illegal act.” It is difficult to imagine any other “just cause or excuse” for inducing a breach of contract than that the contract itself was illegal or contrary to public policy. Here the federation, knowing that after Taff Vale Railway v. Amalgamated Society of Railway ServantsF17 the federation itself would be liable, sought to shift the responsibility on to the sliding scale committee. But it is not permissible thus, by the intervention of a third person who uses illegal means, to...

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