UK Supreme Court confirms the limited scope of state and diplomatic immunity from employment claims: Benkharbouche and Reyes

In two judgments handed down on 18 October 2017, the Supreme Court (the “Court”) has allowed certain employment claims made by foreign nationals employed as domestic workers at the embassies of foreign states and a diplomat’s residence to proceed despite claims of immunity. The judgments consider important aspects of state and diplomatic immunity, the differences between the two, and wider considerations of the interplay between domestic, EU and international law.

In Benkharbouche (Respondent) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Appellant) and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Libya (Appellants) v Janah (Respondent) [2017] UKSC 62, the Court held that certain provisions of the State Immunity Act 1978 (“SIA”) barring the claims were not justified by any rule of customary international law and were therefore incompatible with both Article 6 (right to a fair trial) of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) and Article 47 (right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the “Charter”). The Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision to (i) disapply these provisions of the SIA to the extent that they conflicted with EU law (Article 47 of the Charter), thereby allowing the employment claims that derive from EU law (discrimination, harassment and holiday pay) to proceed, and (ii) to make a declaration of incompatibility in respect of the SIA provisions under Article 6 of the ECHR – this being the only remedy available in respect of the domestic claims not derived from EU law (including unpaid wages and unfair dismissal), which therefore remained barred.

In Reyes (Appellant/Cross Respondent) v Al-Malki and another (Respondents/Cross-Appellants) [2017] UKSC 61, the Court found that a diplomat’s immunity after leaving his or her post is limited by Article 39 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (the “Vienna Convention”) to acts performed in the exercise of their diplomatic functions, regardless of whether the diplomat was otherwise entitled to immunity at the time the relevant acts took place. The Court held that the employment and mistreatment of domestic staff does not fall under the category of acts performed in the exercise of diplomatic functions and allowed Ms Reyes’ appeal.

Please see here for our previous blog post on both Court of Appeal decisions.
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