ECHR reaffirms State immunity from civil proceedings for acts of torture in Jones v United Kingdom

In the recent case of Jones and others v United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) found that the United Kingdom had not breached Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right of access to a court) by granting immunity from jurisdiction to Saudi Arabia and its officials in respect of civil claims brought against them for alleged acts of torture. The Court held that the generally recognised rules of public international law did not contain an exception to State immunity in respect of civil claims concerning alleged acts of torture. It also found that such immunity of a State also protects individual employees and officers in respect of acts undertaken on behalf of the State.

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English High Court considers: arbitability of civil claims with a criminal aspect; its discretion to enforce awards under s66 of the Arbitration Act 1996; and the scope of the arbitration exception to immunity under s9 of the State Immunity Act 1978

In The London Steam-Ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd v The Kingdom of Spain and the French State [2013] EWHC 3188 (Comm), the High Court had to consider whether to exercise its discretion under section 66 of the English Arbitration Act 1996 (the Act) to permit enforcement of two arbitral awards giving declaratory relief to the protection and indemnity insurers (the Club) of the owners of a vessel that had sunk off the coast of Spain, causing a major oil spill. The arbitral awards made declarations limiting the liability of the Club in relation to claims brought by the Spanish and French States (the States) as a result of the oil spill. The application was made by the Club on an urgent basis, as it understood that a Spanish court would soon issue a judgment in respect of the same cause of action.

The States challenged the substantive jurisdiction of the tribunal that had rendered the two awards (the Tribunal) on the grounds that their rights of direct action against the Club were in essence independent rights under Spanish law, the claims were not arbitrable and (in relation to France’s claims only) waiver of the right to arbitrate by the Club. However, the Court dismissed all of the challenges, emphasising that the States’ claims were in substance claims under a contract of insurance between the Club and the owners of the vessel (the Contract) and that they fell within the scope of the arbitration clause in the Contract.

The States’ further contention that the English courts lacked jurisdiction over them in view of their state immunity under the English State Immunity Act 1978 (the SIA) was rejected by the Court. In bringing claims in relation to the Contract, the States had, for the purposes of the Act and the SIA, become parties to the Contract and the agreement in writing in the Contract to refer claims to arbitration. The States therefore came within one of the exceptions to state immunity in the SIA.

The Court held that the real prospect of establishing the primacy of the awards of the Tribunal over any inconsistent judgment which might be rendered in Spain meant that there was clear utility in granting the Club leave to enforce the awards as judgments under section 66 of the Act. It rejected the States’ arguments that exercise of its discretion to permit enforcement would be inappropriate as it would lead to a result not countenanced by EC Regulation No 44/2001 (the Brussels Regulation) or that the awards should not be enforced because of the importance of, and public interest in, the Spanish proceedings. The Court granted leave to enforce the awards as judgments of the Court to the same effect.

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UK Court of Appeal considers the immunity from suit of the family of a head of state

The Court of Appeal has examined the extent to which foreign heads of state and their families can claim immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978 (the SIA) when acting in their personal capacity.

The Court of Appeal has confirmed that only close relatives of a head of state, who form part of his or her household, benefit from immunity from suit in the UK under s20(1) of the SIA. Relatives other than the spouse (or equivalent) of the head of state and dependants will not benefit from immunity under the SIA.

The Court also considered the commercial activity exception in Article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (the Vienna Convention), opining that immunity applies to non-official commercial activities conducted outside the UK, but not those conducted within it.

As the Court pointed out, international commercial disputes are frequently adjudicated in the UK. This decision is noteworthy for its clarification of the extent to which relatives of a foreign head of state can claim immunity in respect of their personal activities when they appear before UK courts.

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