Supreme Court ruling on state immunity gives tribunals jurisdiction to hear embassy worker claims

Two embassy workers, one working for the Libyan embassy in London and another working for the Sudanese embassy in London, brought claims in the employment tribunal, against Libya and Sudan respectively, after being dismissed. The claims were dismissed by the tribunal, on the basis that both Libya and Sudan benefited from state immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978.

A series of appeals joined these cases together and brought them before the Supreme Court. The heart of the issue lies in an apparent tension between the State Immunity Act -the purpose of which is to ensure there are no infringements to a foreign state’s sovereignty- and article 6 of the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR) regarding the right to a fair trial, which includes right of access to a court.

In reviewing the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court found that article 6 violations had previously been found where the application of state immunity was contrary to rules of international law. Naturally, the Secretary of State argued that state immunity in this case was consistent with customary international law.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court found that there has been insufficient international consensus for customary international law to emerge regarding an absolute doctrine of state immunity. Therefore state immunity could not be extended to the employment of embassy staff, which the court deemed to be a private act, unrelated to the concept of state sovereignty.

Those claims which were based on EU law (such as those relating to working time, discrimination and harassment) were therefore allowed to proceed, and were remitted to the employment tribunal for consideration.

This decision is likely to benefit a horde of low-paid workers who were employed in embassies in the UK, and we may see numerous tribunal claims against foreign states proceed in the employment tribunals.

Our advice to embassies is put in place an immediate review of their contractual arrangements (employment contracts and contracts for services) to ensure they comply with English employment law to avoid falling foul of local laws. Please contact our employment team to find out how we can assist.

Benkharbouche (Respondent) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Appellant) and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Lybia (Appellants) v Janah (Respondent) [2017] UKSC 62.

 

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Emmanuelle Ries - Partner

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