Saudi claim dismissed after solicitors withdraw over unpaid fees

Saudi embassy: No one but itself to blame for what happened, says court

The Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal brought by embassy of Saudi Arabia because of non-appearance at the hearing, after its solicitors withdrew due to unpaid fees.

Lord Justice Underhill, the court’s vice-president, said there was “no possible excuse” for the embassy being unrepresented.

Antoinette Costantine brought employment tribunal proceedings in 2018 complaining of discrimination and harassment by the cultural bureau of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

The embassy claimed state immunity but the tribunal held that, as she was not a member of a mission within the meaning of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, state immunity did not apply.

This was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the embassy appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Underhill LJ explained that City firm RPC had acted for the embassy throughout but in February filed an application for an order declaring that it had ceased to act.

The firm had previously given the embassy notice that it would cease to act on all work at the end of 2023 because of “prolonged non-payment” of its bills.

RPC continued to act after the embassy said it would be paid the outstanding fees, and a sum on account of brief fees for these proceedings, by no later than “early February”. But this did not happen.

The court made the order and wrote to a contact at the embassy provided by RPC, a cultural attaché with no legal background who co-ordinated with others in the embassy and Saudi government as part of her administrative duties.

She said various people were “resolving financial matters with RPC within the next couple of days” and that she hoped the law firm would resume its work. She asked for a “delay of the hearing”.

The claimant opposed an adjournment, arguing that the embassy had been aware of the hearing since August 2023 and it was “unsatisfactory” that a party with vast resources sought an adjournment so late in the day and for an insufficient reason.

The court office told the attaché that a formal adjournment application was needed. She replied that RPC had been paid some money but not all of it because of the embassy’s internal processes. She asked again for a delay “until we convince RPC to continue to represent us”.

The court office replied that “there should be no insuperable difficulty in engaging solicitors in London at short notice”.

On the day of the hearing, nobody from the embassy attended and there was no formal application for an adjournment or evidence in support of one.

Underhill LJ said: “Nevertheless, I think I should say that the court would not, on the evidence supplied in correspondence, have thought it right to adjourn the appeal, for essentially two reasons – first, that an adjournment would cause serious prejudice to the claimant; and second that there appears to be no excuse at all for the predicament that the appellant finds itself in.”

The claimant had been waiting for over six years and an adjournment could jeopardise the hearing of the underlying claim due a few weeks later.

“Any adjournment would, given the pressure of work on the employment tribunal, mean an adjournment of many months – certainly into 2025. Given the history of this case to date, that would be wholly unacceptable.”

There was also “no possible excuse” for the embassy being unrepresented – it had “ample time to go through whatever internal procedures were necessary to see that RPC were paid, and it has no-one to blame but itself for the fact that that has not happened”.

Alternatively, it also had ample time to instruct other solicitors. “There can be no excuse for it being unable to arrange for legal representation at the hearing of an appeal which it is itself bringing.”

As a result, the court dismissed the appeal.

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