Consulate building works held immune from enforcement

The Chinese consulate in Belfast cannot be subject to an injunction against unauthorised building works because it benefits from state immunity, the High Court has ruled.

The consulate occupied a listed building in a conservation area. A planning application had been submitted seeking permission for a three-metre-high boundary wall, a car port, a widened vehicular access and a security pavilion at the entrance. The city council refused permission due to the impact upon heritage assets but works commenced, including digging a trench that would adversely affect nearby trees.

Discussions between the consul and the local authority deteriorated and the council issued a temporary stop notice and a listed building enforcement notice. A screen was then erected around the consulate which blocked the local authority from viewing the nature and extent of further works. An injunction to stop all works was requested from the court.

Lady Justice McBride held that since the claim was against the People’s Republic of China, the court had no jurisdiction to grant the relief sought. Sovereign states, she opined, are exempt from the jurisdiction of the UK courts. She also rejected the local authority’s claim that the premises were owned directly by the current consul-general.

While accepting that the court could grant an injunction against an individual occupying the premises if there was a case that unlawful activities were being undertaken, she held that the consul-general was able to claim immunity under the Consular Relations Act 1968 and arguably the Consular Relations (Privileges and Immunities) (People’s Republic of China) Order 1984.

The consul-general was entitled to claim immunity because the works were being carried out on behalf of the Chinese state for security purposes, the court held. If a contrary view were taken, it added that it would have refused to grant relief because any injunction could not be enforced. The judge opined that the council might consider taking action against the builders and seek assistance from the Foreign Office, which might withdraw the right to use the site as consular premises.

 Belfast City Council v Meifang

 Date: 26 June 2020

 Ref: [2020] NICh 12

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