Sovereign immunity

Sovereign immunity

Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.

In constitutional monarchies the sovereign is the historical origin of the authority which creates the courts. Thus the courts had no power to compel the sovereign to be bound by the courts, as they were created by the sovereign for the protection of his or her subjects.


By country


There is no automatic Crown immunity in Australia, although the Crown may be explicitly or implicitly immune from any particular statute. There is a rebuttable presumption that the Crown is not bound by a statute: Bropho v State of Western Australia. The Crown's immunity may also apply to other parties in certain circumstances: see Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Baxter Healthcare.


Article 88 of the Constitution of Belgium states: The King’s person is inviolable; his ministers are accountable.[1]


Article 13 of the Constitution of Denmark states: The King shall not be answerable for his actions; his person shall be sacrosanct. The Ministers shall be responsible for the conduct of the government; their responsibility shall be determined by Statute.[2] Accordingly the monarch cannot be sued in his or her personal capacity, but this immunity from lawsuits does not extend to the state as such.

Holy See

The Holy See, of which the current pope is head (often referred to incorrectly as the Vatican or Vatican City State, a distinct entity) claims sovereign immunity for the pope, supported by many international agreements.


According to article 11 of the constitution of Iceland the president is not accountable and cannot be prosecuted without parliament's consent.


In Byrne v Ireland, the Irish Supreme Court declared that sovereign immunity had not survived the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and that accordingly the state could be sued for and held vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of its servants and agents.[3]


According to the Italian Constitution, the President of the Italian Republic is not accountable, and he is not responsible for any act of his office, unless he has committed high treason or attempted to subvert the Constitution. The Italian penal law makes it a criminal offense to give the President responsibility for actions of the Italian Government in public.

The Italian Constitutional Court has declared the partial incompatibility with the Italian Constitution of a law that forced courts to delay all trials against the Italian Prime Minister while he is in office. The revised version says that the trial hearings have to be scheduled in agreement between the Judge and the Government.


In Malaysia, an amendment to the constitution in 1993 made it possible to bring proceedings against the king or any ruler of a component state in the Special Court. Prior to 1993, rulers, in their personal capacity, were immune from any proceedings brought against them.[4]


Section 308 of the Nigerian constitution of 1999 provides immunity from court proceedings, i.e., proceedings that will compel their attendance in favour of elected executive officers, namely the President and his vice and the Governors of the states and the deputies. This immunity extends to acts done in their official capacities so that they are not responsible for acts done on behalf of the state. However, this immunity does not extend to acts done in abuse of the powers of their office of which they are liable upon the expiration of their tenure. But does the elected executive constitute the sovereign in Nigeria? it seems that the judiciary will be better described as the sovereign in Nigeria if the sovereign is the person who in the last resort is able to decide his own competence and that of other contender in the event of any conflict of authority. Failing this, the constitution as an expression of the will of Nigerians is the sovereign.It is important to note that the judiciary has absolute immunity for actions decisions taken in their official capacity.


Article 5 of the Constitution of Norway states: The King's person is sacred; he cannot be censured or accused. The responsibility rests with his Council.[5] Accordingly the monarch cannot be prosecuted or sued in his or her personal capacity, but this immunity does not extend to the state as such.


The Spanish monarch is personally immune from prosecution for acts committed by government ministers in the King's name, according to Title II, Section 56, Subsection 3 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978.[6][7]

The Person of the King of Spain is inviolable and shall not be held accountable. His acts shall always be countersigned in the manner established in section 64. Without such countersignature they shall not be valid, except as provided under section 65(2).[6][7]

La persona del Rey de España es inviolable y no está sujeta a responsabilidad. Sus actos estarán siempre refrendados en la forma establecida en el artículo 64, careciendo de validez sin dicho refrendo, salvo lo dispuesto en el artículo 65,2.[6][7]

Sri Lanka

By the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the President of Sri Lanka has sovereign immunity.


Article 7, Chapter 5, of the Swedish Instrument of Government states: "The King may not be prosecuted for his actions. Nor may a Regent be prosecuted for his actions as Head of State." This only concerns the King as a private person, since he does not appoint the government, nor do any public officials act in his name. It does not concern other members of the Royal Family, except in such cases as they are exercising the office of Regent when the King is unable to serve. It is a disputed matter among Swedish constitutional lawyers whether the article also implies that the King is immune against lawsuits in civil cases, which do not involve prosecution.


The President of Singapore does to a certain extent have sovereign immunity subjected to clause 22k(4).[1](See Part V under government regarding the President of Singapore)

United Kingdom

Immunity in proceedings

Historically, the general rule in the United Kingdom has been that the Crown has never been able to be prosecuted or proceeded against in either criminal or civil cases.[8] The only means by which civil proceedings could be brought were:

  • by way of petition of right, which was dependent on the grant of the royal fiat (i.e. permission);
  • by suits against the Attorney-General for a declaration; or
  • by actions against ministers or government departments where an Act of Parliament had specifically provided that immunity be waived.

The position was drastically altered by the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 which made the Crown (when acting as the government) liable as of right in proceedings where it was previously only liable by virtue of a grant of a fiat.[9] With limited exceptions, this had the effect of allowing proceedings for tort and contract to be brought against the Crown.[10] Proceedings to bring writs of mandamus and prohibition were always available against ministers, because their actions derive from the royal prerogative.[citation needed]

Criminal proceedings are still prohibited from being brought unless expressly permitted by statute.[11]

As the Crown Proceedings Act only affected the law in respect of acts carried on by or on behalf of the UK government, the monarch remains personally immune from criminal and civil actions.[12] However, civil proceedings can, in theory, still be brought using the two original mechanisms outlined above - by petition of right or by suit against the Attorney-General for a declaration.[13]

Other immunities

The monarch is immune from arrest in all cases, and members of the royal household are also immune from arrest in civil proceedings.[14] No arrest can be made "in the monarch's presence", or within the "verges" of a royal palace. When a royal palace is used as a residence (regardless of whether the monarch is actually living there at the time), judicial processes cannot be executed within that palace.[15]

The monarch's goods cannot be taken under a writ of execution, nor can distress be levied on land in their possession. Chattels owned by the Crown, but present on another's land, cannot be taken in execution or for distress. The Crown is not subject to foreclosure.[16]

United States

In the United States, the federal government has sovereign immunity and may not be sued unless it has waived its immunity or consented to suit. The United States has waived sovereign immunity to a limited extent, mainly through the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives the immunity if a tortious act of a federal employee causes damage, and the Tucker Act, which waives the immunity over claims arising out of contracts to which the federal government is a party.

State sovereign immunity

In Hans v. Louisiana (1890), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Eleventh Amendment (1795) re-affirms that states possess sovereign immunity and are therefore generally immune from being sued in federal court without their consent. In later cases, the Supreme Court has strengthened state sovereign immunity considerably. In Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak (1991), the court explained that

we have understood the Eleventh Amendment to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition of our constitutional structure which it confirms: that the States entered the federal system with their sovereignty intact; that the judicial authority in Article III is limited by this sovereignty, and that a State will therefore not be subject to suit in federal court unless it has consented to suit, either expressly or in the "plan of the convention." [Citations omitted.]

In Alden v. Maine (1999), the Court explained that while it has

sometimes referred to the States’ immunity from suit as "Eleventh Amendment immunity[,]" [that] phrase is [a] convenient shorthand but something of a misnomer, [because] the sovereign immunity of the States neither derives from nor is limited by the terms of the Eleventh Amendment. Rather, as the Constitution's structure, and its history, and the authoritative interpretations by this Court make clear, the States’ immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today (either literally or by virtue of their admission into the Union upon an equal footing with the other States) except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments.

Writing for the court in Alden, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that in view of this, and given the limited nature of congressional power delegated by the original unamended Constitution, the court could not "conclude that the specific Article I powers delegated to Congress necessarily include, by virtue of the Necessary and Proper Clause or otherwise, the incidental authority to subject the States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the scope of the enumerated powers."

However, a "consequence of [the] Court's recognition of pre-ratification sovereignty as the source of immunity from suit is that only States and arms of the State possess immunity from suits authorized by federal law." Northern Insurance Company of New York v. Chatham County (2006 emphases added). Thus, cities and municipalities lack sovereign immunity, Jinks v. Richland County (2003), and counties are not generally considered to have sovereign immunity, even when they "exercise a 'slice of state power.'" Lake Country Estates, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (1979).

International law

Sovereign immunity is available to countries in international court but if they are acting more as a contracting body (example: making agreements in regards to extracting oil and selling it), then sovereign immunity may not be available to them.

Under international law, and subject to some conditions, countries are immune from legal proceedings in another state. This stems from customary international law.[17] The US recognizes this concept under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (1976).

See also


  1. ^ Legal Department of the House of Representatives, with the collaboration of Mr A. MacLean (2009-01). "The Belgian Constitution". Retrieved 2009-05-31. 
  2. ^ Folketinget (2009-08-06). "Unofficial translation of the Constitutional Act of Denmark". 
  3. ^ [1972] 1 IR 241
  4. ^ Lawyerment - Document Library - Laws of Malaysia - Constitution
  5. ^ The Constitution of Norway in English Retrieved 21 November 2006
  6. ^ a b c Título II. De la Corona, Wikisource
  7. ^ a b c The Royal Household of H.M. The King website
  8. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown Proceedings and Crown Practice", paragraph 101
  9. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 8(1): "Constitutional Law and Human Rights", paragraph 382
  10. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 8(1): "Constitutional Law and Human Rights", paragraph 382
  11. ^ Sunkin, Maurice (2003). "Crown immunity from criminal liability in English law". Public Law (Winter 2003): 716–729. 
  12. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown and Royal Family", paragraph 47
  13. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown and Royal Family", paragraph 56
  14. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown and Royal Family", paragraph 52
  15. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown and Royal Family", paragraph 53
  16. ^ Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 12(1): "Crown and Royal Family", paragraph 54
  17. ^ Akehurst's modern introduction to international law, by Peter Malanczuk, Michael Barton Akehurst, Routledge 7 ed., 1997, ISBN 041511120X, Page 118

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