Diplomatic immunity in the case of Anne Sacoolas: a fateful loophole
Amy Howe - 09th January 2023
In 2019 Anne Sacoolas, the wife of an American CIA employee, killed teenage motorcyclist Harry Dunn in a fatal crash in Northamptonshire while driving on the wrong side of the road. Controversially granted diplomatic immunity by the US administration following the incident, she was able to leave the UK shortly after the crash. Yet last month, she appeared at the Old Bailey for her sentencing via video-link, where she was handed eight months in prison, suspended for a year.
The nature of Sacoolas’ sentence makes any prison time highly unlikely. Having been advised by the US government not to return to the UK for her sentencing, there is little threat of time behind bars while Sacoolas remains in the States. Unsurprisingly, the case has been a point of contention between UK and US governments for the past three years. So, what is diplomatic immunity? And who benefits from it?
Diplomatic immunity is a unique part of international law that allows people in positions of political significance (government officials, diplomats etc.) legal immunity in a foreign country. In most cases, it offers blanket protection from prosecution in the country they find themselves in, although it rarely hits the news in the way it has done in the case of Harry Dunn. The principle was designed with the intention of facilitating better relations between states, particularly during periods of tension and conflict, and its application is often considered to be mutually beneficial. In this instance however, that seems not to be the case.
Part of the controversy of the case revolved around the fact that Sacoolas had initially been protected by what many described as a diplomatic loophole. Jonathan Sacoolas – Anne Sacoolas’ husband – is a member of US government staff based at the RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire. In 1995, the UK government granted diplomatic immunity to all US staff working at the base, but included the clause that waived this immunity in cases where the individual was acting outside of their specific duties. Crucially, while the immunity was extended to dependents (immediate family members) of the US government staff, the clause wasn’t.
Since Harry Dunn’s death, the waiver has been extended to include dependants.