NI: High Court: PSNI Inspector’s employment dispute not amenable to judicial review

The High Court in Belfast declined jurisdiction in the case of a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Inspector who brought an application for judicial review, finding that the matter was not to be treated as one of public law.

The inspector, Ms Pamela Colville, brought an application for judicial review after a position she applied for within the PSNI was withdrawn without explanation, and filled by those recently promoted from the position of Sergeant. Accordingly, she argued that she had a legitimate expectation that her application would be dealt with in accordance with the rules of the competition.


In February 2010, a “Vacancy Bulletin” indicated that there were 12 D/Inspector posts in Crime Operations Branch, which existing Inspectors could apply for.

Having held the position of Inspector for over 8 years, Ms Colville submitted an application form for the post; expecting that there would be a structured interview and perhaps other stages in the competition.

On 12 March 2015 Ms Colville received an email from Ms Colette Quinn, PSNI Internal Selection and Promotions Manager, indicating that the vacancy bulletin had been withdrawn – but notably offering no explanation for this step.

Ms Colville averred that she later found out that the positions in question had been filled by Sergeants who had been successful in obtaining promotion to the rank of Inspector – thus there was no competition in the conventional sense of applications for the position being submitted; an assessment centre or subsequent interviews; and the development of a merit list.

Application for Judicial Review

The High Court proceedings were begun on 15 June 2015 three days after the expiry of three months from the date of the impugned decision.

On behalf of Ms Colville it was submitted that, by reason of her answering the vacancies bulletin and making an application for one of the vacancies, she acquired a legitimate expectation of a substantive character that her application would be dealt with in accordance with the rules of the competition and that the competition would be processed to an end unless there was a good reason to the contrary.

Consequently Ms Colville’s expectation was disappointed by the withdrawal of the vacancy bulletin, and the respondent had failed to adduce evidence of a good reason for the abandonment of the competition.

It was also argued that on the evidence before the court the decision to withdraw the vacancy bulletin was irrational.

On behalf of the respondent it was argued that on the facts of this case there was no promise to Ms Colville which could give rise to the legitimate expectation which Ms Colville claimed to exist. In the alternative, if such an expectation did exist, a rational reason had been provided to Ms Colville for the withdrawal of the vacancy bulletin.

Is the matter amenable to judicial review?

On the facts of the case, the Court had to consider whether there was a matter of public law amenable to the court’s jurisdiction.

Citing a range of authorities such as McClaren v Home Office ICR 82 and, Re Phillips Application NI 322; the respondent contended that the issue before the court was a matter of private law.

Justice Maguire recognised that while neither of these cases involved the position of police officers, they established some general principles in this area – for example McClaren set out circumstances in which a Crown officer holder would have the right to bring a judicial review application in what would otherwise be a private employment dispute:

  1. If the appointment under a statutory or prerogative power was terminated;
  2. Review of the decision of any disciplinary body set up under statutory or prerogative powers which had a sufficient public law element;
  3. Where a decision of general application was made by the “employer” which could be challenged on Wednesbury grounds.
  4. There is no dispute about the fact that a police officer is an office holder not an employee, as per Re Chambers Application NIQB 27.

    After careful analysis of the factors present in Ms Colville’s case, Justice Maguire was satisfied that the decision impugned was not to be treated as one of public law – consequently the Court declined jurisdiction.

    Legitimate expectation

    Notwithstanding the finding on jurisdiction, Justice Maguire continued to explore the substantive issues raised.

    Considering authorities put forward in support of Ms Colville, including Re Corey and Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance’s Application NIQB 110; Justice Maguire was satisfied that if the matter was one of public law, the court would accept that Ms Colville would be a beneficiary of a legitimate expectation that her application would be dealt with in accordance with the rules of the competition and would be processed to an end unless there was a rational reason to the contrary.

    That being said, the Court accepted that while there was no “good reason” for withdrawing the bulletin, there was a “rational reason”. Furthermore, the Court was of the view that the application should fail for reason of delay in initiating the proceedings – the application should have been brought within the three months prescribed by Order 53 Rule 4, and in any event the Court would refuse to extend the time or regard Ms Colville’s case as one which should proceed on public interest grounds.


    Refusing the application for judicial review, Justice Maguire took time to criticise the respondent’s treatment of Ms Colville for not being up to the standard one would have expected from the police – stating that the failure to provide an explanation for withdrawing the vacancy did not put the respondent in a good light.

    • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
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