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Public Sector Employers Must Keep Their Promises

In a ruling which underlines the duty of public sector employers to keep their promises, a group of police officers whose status was affected by a cuts-driven promotions freeze – although they had passed gruelling tests which should have meant their elevation to a higher rank – have convinced the High Court that their treatment was unfair and in breach of their legitimate expectations.

The group of constables and sergeants had put personal, emotional and financial effort into passing the tests and, following their success, were unequivocally told that they would be promoted to the next rank up, subject to professional standards checks and suitable vacancies opening.

However, in response to public sector funding cuts, they were subsequently informed that the force’s promotions system was being frozen and that, even when that embargo was lifted, they would have to take the tests all over again. The force explained that it was faced with the prospect of having to make £134 million in cuts between 2011 and 2015 – about 20% of its entire budget – and that 1,200 police officers and more than 1,500 other staff were expected to lose their jobs.

The disappointed officers mounted a judicial review challenge to the dashing of their promotion hopes and triumphed when the Court ruled that they had a legitimate expectation that, on passing the tests, they would be placed in a pool of those awaiting promotion.

The Court ruled that the officers had been given ‘an unequivocal assurance by means of an express promise’ that they would be consulted before any significant changes were made to the force’s promotions policy. The force accepted that none of the officers had been consulted individually and the Court found that it had thus acted in breach of the requirement of procedural fairness.

The Court quashed the force’s decision that the success the officers achieved in the tests would no longer qualify them for immediate promotion, subject to professional standards checks and a vacancy arising. The force was directed to reconsider its shift in policy and the position of each of the individual officers.