EU law puts embassies in the dock

Diplomatic Missions in the UK are no longer immune from prosecution in some civil disputes after the Appeal Court ruled that EU human rights law trumps UK immunity law.

In a landmark case, two workers appealed when their legal action against their missions was blocked due to the UK State Immunity Act, and the Court of Appeal ruled in their favour that this breached their right to a fair trial which is enshrined in European law.

Courts to ignore State Immunity
The Appeal Court “disapplied” two sections of the State Immunity Act 1978 which it said were “incompatible” with Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The former workers at the Sudanese and Libyan embassies are thus able to bring legal claims of unfair dismissal and breaches of EU working time rules against their employers without having to wait for a change in UK law.

The ‘declaration of incompatibility’ is also a signal to Parliament that it should consider amending immunity legislation.

Reacting the ruling, a Foreign Office spokesperson told Embassy: “We are disappointed that the Court of Appeal did not accept our view that the relevant parts of the State Immunity Act reflect international law.

“We firmly believe this is a matter for Parliament and that the courts should respect Parliament’s decisions when implementing international law in the UK. We are considering the Court’s judgment carefully.”

Mohamed Shaban, of MS Legal Solicitors, representing Libya, said the Libyan government was “considering the judgement”.

“Nothing in this judgment suggests any wrongdoing by Libya,” he said.

“The Libyan government worked alongside the British Foreign Office and takes credit for assisting the Court of Appeal in clarifying the law on state immunity and human rights.”

Emily-Anna Gibbs, of the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), a charity which represents the claimants, said the case was “hugely significant”.

UK Protections ‘too generous’
“Overseas domestic workers working in diplomatic households and embassies are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation and abuse including trafficking,” she said.

Gibbs added she was “delighted” the court had recognised that UK immunity was “too generous”, adding: “We hope the government will act fast to change the law.”

The ruling will clear a path for further legal claims against other missions, such as the Embassy of Qatar, which had been put on hold until the Appeal Court ruling. An embassy receptionist is now seeking £100,000 damages for unfair dismissal and race and age discrimination.

Far-reaching implications
Furthermore, while these cases have arisen in the context of EU employment rights, the ruling has far-reaching implications and could be used in many other civil claims that have a basis in EU law, legal experts warned.

However, individual diplomats employing servants will continue to be protected by the Vienna Conventions as international law cannot be superseded.

The courts upheld a Saudi diplomat’s claim to diplomatic immunity when two of his employees took legal action against him.

Had the women had been employed by the embassy in a commercial rather than private contract, the women would have been covered by EU law and able to sue.

Diplomatic Missions are advised to review the terms on which staff have been employed following this ruling.

The case will feed into the debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe where MPs have signed a motion demanding primacy of UK laws. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has vowed to scale back EU law so that Acts of Parliament cannot be overturned by EU human rights laws.