Friday 6 February 2015

Rights, remedies and state immunity: the Court of Appeal judgment in Benkharbouche and Janah

Steve Peers

Yesterday’s important judgment in Benkharbouche v Sudan and Janah v Libya by the Court of Appeal raised important issues of public international law, the ECHR and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and demonstrated the relationship between them in the current state of the British constitution. The case involved two domestic workers bringing employment law complaints against the respective embassies of Sudan and Libya, which responded to the complaints by claiming state immunity, based on a UK Act of Parliament (the State Immunity Act) which transposes a Council of Europe Convention on that issue.

The question is whether invoking state immunity for these employment claims amounted to a breach of human rights law, given that Article 6 of the ECHR (the right to a fair trial) guarantees access to the courts, according to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In turn, this raised issues of EU law, given that Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights likewise guarantees the right to a fair trial, and some of the claims concerned EU law issues (the race discrimination and working time Directives). (Other claims, such as for ordinary wages and unfair dismissal, were not linked to EU law). The two cases didn't concern human trafficking or modern slavery, although sometimes embassies are involved in such disputes too. But they would be relevant by analogy to such disputes, and there would also be a link to EU law in such cases, since there is an EU Directive banning human trafficking, which the UK has opted in to. 

The Court of Appeal, essentially following the prior judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, made a careful study of recent ECtHR case law, concluding that state immunity could no longer be invoked against all employment law claims, but only against those claims concerning core embassy staff. This could not apply to domestic workers; Ms. Janah’s tasks did not involve (for instance) shooting any British policewomen.

But what was the remedy for this breach of human rights principles? At lower levels, the tribunals had been powerless to rule on the claims for breach of the ECHR, since the UK’s Human Rights Act awards the power to issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ that an Act of Parliament breaches the ECHR to higher courts only. So the Court of Appeal was the first court that could issue such a declaration, and it did so in this case. (The Court concluded that it could not ‘read down’ the relevant clauses in the State Immunity Act to interpret them consistently with the ECHR).

However, as compared to the effect of EU law, even a declaration of incompatibility with the ECHR is relatively weak, given that the potential remedy for a breach of EU law is the disapplication of national law, even Acts of Parliament if necessary, by the national courts. So the Court of Appeal also ruled that the relevant provisions of the State Immunity Act had to be disapplied, to the extent that they were applied as a barrier to the claims based on EU law. On this point, the Court was following the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which had also ruled to disapply the Act, given that any level of national court or tribunal has the power to disapply an act of parliament if necessary to give effect to EU law.

If I had a pound for every law student who has confused the remedies in UK law for the breach of EU law with the remedies for the breach of the ECHR, I would be very rich indeed. Fortunately, the facts of this case easily demonstrate the distinction between them. Only the higher courts could even contemplate issuing a declaration of incompatibility with the ECHR; and the remedy of disapplication of the Act of Parliament is obviously stronger than the declaration of incompatibility, allowing the case to proceed on the merits (as far as it relates to EU law) rather than having to wait for Parliament to change the law in order to do so. And equally, the case shows the importance of the requirement that a case has to be linked to EU law in order for the Charter to apply: only the race discrimination and working time claims benefit from the disapplication of provisions of the Act of Parliament, and so only those claims can proceed to court as things stand.

From an EU law perspective, the most interesting point examined by the Court of Appeal was the application of the ‘horizontal direct effect’ of Charter rights, ie the application of EU law against private parties (since non-EU States aren’t bound by EU law as States, the court assimilated them to private parties). In its judgment last year in AMS (discussed here), the CJEU distinguished between those Charter rights which could give rise to a challenge against national law based on the principle of supremacy of EU law, and those Charter rights which could not, since they were too imprecise to base a free-standing Charter claim upon. The right to non-discrimination on grounds of age fell within the former category, whereas the right of workers to be consulted and informed fell within the latter category. (Note that the CJEU case law classifies this as an application of the principle of supremacy, not horizontal direct effect, although the final outcome is the same no matter how the principle is classified, at least in cases like these).

The Court of Appeal reaches the conclusion that Article 47 of the Charter is also a provision which is precise enough to be used to challenge national legislation. That’s an important point, since Article 47 is a far-reaching and frequently invoked provision, and applies not just to state immunity issues but to many broader issues concerning access to the courts (including legal aid) and effective remedies.  For that reason, this judgment is an important precedent for national courts across the European Union faced with challenges to national laws based on Article 47 of the Charter, although of course it doesn’t formally bind any court besides the lower courts of England and Wales.

The Court didn’t need to rule on whether the substantive Charter rights raised by these cases would have the effect of disapplying national law, since it wasn’t ruling on the merits of the cases, but only on the issue of access to court. If it were ruling on the substantive issues, it would seem obvious that race discrimination claims have the same strong legal effect as age discrimination claims, as both claims are based on the same provision of the Charter (Article 21). However, claims based on breach of Article 31 of the Charter (the working time provision) might not have that strong legal effect. Indeed, an Advocate-General’s opinion in the pending case of Fennoll has concluded as much.

Furthermore, the social rights in the Charter (such as the rights set out in Article 31) are subject to a special rule in the Protocol to the EU Treaties which attempts to limit the effect of the Charter in the UK and Poland. The CJEU ruled in its NS judgment that this Protocol does not generally disapply the Charter in the UK, but it did not then rule if the Protocol might nonetheless affect the enforceability of social rights. Given that yesterday’s judgment was about Article 47 of the Charter, not about a substantive social right, it was not necessary for the Court of Appeal to grasp this nettle either.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 20

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