What is Sovereign Immunity?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept which dates back to the Middle Ages. Under sovereign immunity, the sovereign cannot be held accountable in tort suits, under the argument that because the sovereign makes the law, it is impossible for the sovereign to commit civil wrongs. This concept has been integrated into the legal systems of a number of nations around the world, although it is controversial in some regions.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

This concept was developed, unsurprisingly, by literal sovereigns who wanted to protect themselves from suit by the people. It was often used as a tool for suppression, by making it difficult for citizens to find redress when civil wrongs were committed by the government. In modern uses, however, it refers to a sovereign in the sense of the government. Nations governments are considered protected under sovereign immunity, but individual representatives of the government can still be held liable for civil wrongs they commit. Being the President or Prime Minister of a country, for example, does not exempt one from liability.

Originally, this protection from liability was used as a blanket shield, limiting opportunities for citizens to sue the government. Over time, the concept evolved. The government can waive immunity or consent to a specific suit, and several governments have actually passed sweeping laws which waive immunity for most suits, providing citizens with the right to sue the government in civil cases. When the government is brought to court, a representative appears on behalf of the government during the trial.

Different nations apply sovereign immunity laws differently, and may have protections at lesser levels of government as well. Citizens in nations which allow suits can use suits to challenge the law, to force the government to address problems it is responsible for, and for other reasons. Such suits often involve multiple citizens who are presented by very skilled lawyers.

Because sovereign immunity is under increasing challenge in many areas of the world, when governments rely on this legal principle to avoid suit, they sometimes attract the ire of their populace. Citizens may accuse the government of hiding behind the sovereign immunity clause, rather than being willing to face its day in court. This can be especially controversial in contested cases where citizens may feel like they are being silenced or ignored by the government. Sometimes governments may have good reasons for not wanting to go to court, such as concerns about national security, but this reasoning is not always accepted by angry citizens.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


How does one see sovereign immunity in the school system?


What does it mean for money matters? If I do business with a tribal group and they claim that any decisions are to the exclusive laws and jurisdiction of the Cheyenne River Sioux Trip, what does that mean for a US citizen? The laws are not explained prior to the deal.


I really can't decide where I come down on the whole sovereign immunity/11th amendment thing.

I mean, I totally agree that states and their governments need to be protected, but the whole concept of sovereign immunity in general seems kind of like a boy's club to me.

Having clear boundaries and authority around your government and governmental officials is one thing, but I think that all too often sovereign immunity gets used to protect the interests of the big state people while leaving the little people out to dry.

Again, I definitely get that we can't always be calling the actions of the state or the government into question. That would be a case of way too many cooks in the same kitchen, and frankly, government does not work at it's most efficient if it's entirely democratic.

I just wish there was a way to draw some clearer lines about what exactly can be protected under sovereign immunity, and what the government and officials have to stand up and take responsibility for.

Just some food for thought...where do you guys come down on the whole state and government sovereign immunity issue?


Did you know there's also a concept called tribal sovereign immunity? Just like governmental sovereign immunity, many tribal governments have a form of limited sovereign immunity.

However, recently the whole idea of tribal sovereign immunity has been put up for debate, and many people are afraid that the state of sovereign immunity will be taken away from the tribes forever.

This would leave the governing structures of the tribes open to lawsuits and the authority of the tribal leaders could be called into question.

Though there's debate on the subject, most people feel like tribal sovereign immunity should be preserved. What do you think?


Would you say that the concept of sovereign immunity goes back to the old conception that monarchs were appointed by God, and therefore it was not appropriate to question their decisions? I mean, obviously not 11th amendment sovereign immunity, but the original concept of sovereign immunity.

I could also see the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope being connected to the whole sovereign immunity thing.

Is there any connection between the two, or is the origin of sovereign immunity more secular than that?

Do you have any idea?

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