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An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing specific acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties, including possible monetary sanctions and even imprisonment.
The injunction is an equitable remedy, that is, a remedy that originated in the English courts of equity. Like other equitable remedies, it has traditionally been given when a wrong cannot be effectively remedied by an award of money damages. (The doctrine that reflects this is the requirement that an injunction can be given only when there is "no adequate remedy at law.") Injunctions are intended to make whole again someone whose rights have been violated. Nevertheless, when deciding whether to grant an injunction, courts also take into account the interests of non-parties (that is, the public interest). When deciding whether to give an injunction, and deciding what its scope should be, courts give special attention to questions of fairness and good faith. One manifestation of this is that injunctions are subject to equitable defenses, such as laches and unclean hands.
Injunctions are given in many different kinds of cases. They can prohibit future violations of the law, such as trespass to real property, infringement of a patent, or the violation of a constitutional right (e.g., the free exercise of religion). Or they can require the defendant to repair past violations of the law.
An injunction can require someone to do something, like clean up an oil spill or remove a spite fence. Or it can prohibit someone from doing something, like using an illegally obtained trade secret. An injunction that requires conduct is called a "mandatory injunction." An injunction that prohibits conduct is called a "prohibitory injunction." Many injunctions are both—that is, they have both mandatory and prohibitory components, because they require some conduct and forbid other conduct.
When an injunction is given, it can be enforced with equitable enforcement mechanisms such as contempt. It can also be modified or dissolved (upon a proper motion to the court) if circumstances change in the future. These features of the injunction allow a court granting one to manage the behavior of the parties. That is the most important distinction between the injunction and another non-monetary remedy in American law, the declaratory judgment. Another way these two remedies are distinguished is that the declaratory judgment is sometimes available at an earlier point in a dispute than the injunction.
Injunctions in the United States tend to come in two main forms.
Permanent injunctions are given after trial. Different federal and state courts sometimes have slightly different requirements for obtaining a permanent injunction. Typical requirements include that without an injunction the plaintiff would suffer "irreparable injury" for which there is "no adequate remedy at law"; that the balance of hardships does strongly cut against giving an injunction; and that the injunction would not disserve the public interest. Note that the balance of hardships inquiry is also sometimes called the "undue hardship defense."
Preliminary injunctions are given before trial. Because they are given at an early stage, before the court has heard the evidence and made a decision in the case, they are more rarely given. The requirements for a preliminary injunction tend to be the same as for a permanent injunction, plus the additional requirement that the party asking for the injunction is likely to succeed on the merits.
A special kind of injunction before trial is called a "temporary restraining order." These can be given without notice and a hearing, and they tend to be given only for a short period of time before a court can hold a hearing and decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction. Temporary restraining orders are often, but not exclusively, given to prevent domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, or harassment.
For both temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions, the goal is usually to preserve the status quo so the court is able to decide the case.
Injunctions have been especially important at two moments in American history.
First, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, federal courts used injunctions to break strikes by unions. For example, after the United States government successfully used an injunction to outlaw the Pullman boycott in 1894 in In re Debs, employers found that they could obtain federal court injunctions to ban strikes and organizing activities of all kinds by unions. These injunctions were often extremely broad; one injunction issued by a federal court in the 1920s effectively barred the United Mine Workers of America from talking to workers who had signed yellow dog contracts with their employers. Unable to limit what they called "government by injunction" in the courts, labor and its allies persuaded the United States Congress in 1932 to pass the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which imposed so many procedural and substantive limits on the federal courts' power to issue injunctions that it effectively prohibited federal court from issuing injunctions in cases arising out of labor disputes. A number of states followed suit and enacted "Little Norris-LaGuardia Acts" that imposed similar limitations on state courts' powers. The courts have since recognized a limited exception to the Norris-LaGuardia Act's strict limitations in those cases in which a party seeks injunctive relief to enforce the grievance arbitration provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.
Second, injunctions were crucial to the second half of the twentieth century in the desegregation of American schools. Federal courts gave injunctions that carried out the command of Brown v Board of Education to integrate public schools in the United States, and at times courts took over the management of public schools in order to ensure compliance. (An injunction that puts a court in the position of taking over and administering an institution—such as a school, a prison, or a hospital—is often called a "structural injunction.")
Injunctions remain widely used to require government officials to comply with the Constitution, and they are also frequently used in private law disputes about intellectual property, real property, and contracts. Many state and federal statutes, including environmental statutes, civil rights statutes and employment-discrimination statutes, are enforced with injunctions.
In the state of New South Wales, a court may grant an apprehended violence order (AVO) to a person who fears violence, harassment, abuse, or stalking. A court may issue an AVO if it believes, on the balance of probabilities, that a person has reasonable grounds to fear personal violence, harassing conduct, molestation, intimidation, or stalking. A defendant's non-compliance with the order may result in the imposition of a fine, imprisonment, or both.
In England and Wales, injunctions whose existence and details may not be legally reported, in addition to facts or allegations which may not be disclosed, have been issued; they have been informally dubbed "super-injunctions".
An example was the super-injunction raised in September 2009 by Carter-Ruck solicitors on behalf of oil trader Trafigura, prohibiting the reporting of an internal Trafigura report into the 2006 Côte d'Ivoire toxic waste dump scandal. The existence of the super-injunction was revealed only when it was referred to in a parliamentary question that was subsequently circulated on the Internet (parliamentary privilege protects statements which would otherwise be held to be in contempt of court). Before it could be challenged in court, the injunction was then varied to permit reporting of the question. By long legal tradition, parliamentary proceedings may be reported without restriction. Parliamentary proceedings are covered by absolute privilege, but the reporting of those proceedings in newspapers is only covered by qualified privilege. Another example of the use of a super-injunction was in a libel case in which a plaintiff who claimed he was defamed by family members in a dispute over a multimillion-pound family trust obtained anonymity for himself and for his relatives.
The term "hyper-injunction" has also been used to describe an injunction similar to a super-injunction but also including an order that the injunction must not be discussed with members of Parliament, journalists, or lawyers. One known hyper-injunction was obtained at the High Court in 2006, preventing its subject from saying that paint used in water tanks on passenger ships can break down and release potentially toxic chemicals. This example became public knowledge in Parliament under parliamentary privilege.
By May 2011, Private Eye claimed to be aware of 53 super-injunctions and anonymised privacy injunctions, though Lord Neuberger's report into the usage of super-injunctions revealed that only two super-injunctions had been granted since January 2010. Many media sources were wrongly stating that all gagging orders were super-injunctions.
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