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State Immunity

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Could an embassy use state immunity to deny the jurisdiction of the employment tribunal in a discrimination case?

Yes, held the EAT in The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia (Cultural Bureau) v Alhayali, subject to a specific exception for personal injury.

The Claimant worked for the Respondent in their Cultural Affairs department, where her duties included supporting Saudi students in the UK on cultural projects. She brought various discrimination claims. The Respondent claimed state immunity. State immunity can be claimed in tribunal proceedings to deny jurisdiction where the individual’s role is an exercise of sovereign authority. 

The tribunal concluded that the Claimant’s role was ‘ancillary and supportive’ to any exercise of sovereign authority, so state immunity could not be claimed. The EAT disagreed. They held that the fact that the Claimant’s role was ‘ancillary and supportive’, did not automatically mean that it could not attract state immunity. It could still do so if the functions discharged by her were ‘sufficiently close’ to the exercise of sovereign authority.

The EAT found that the Claimant’s ‘ancillary and supportive’ work (looking after the interests of Saudi students in the UK and promoting Saudi academic and artistic work) were duties which were ‘sufficiently close’ to the exercise of sovereign authority and that state immunity applied. 

The EAT concluded that state immunity did not, however, apply to the Claimant’s claim that her discriminatory treatment by the Respondent had caused psychiatric injury. State immunity does not apply to personal injury claims, and the EAT held that the concept of personal injury extended to psychiatric injury.