What does diplomatic immunity really mean?

Can you claim diplomatic immunity to get out of paying rent? That question's come into focus after one Ottawa landlord went public with his frustrations.

A woman invoked 'diplomatic immunity' in an Ottawa rental dispute

Rolf Baumann has been unable to get rent money from an U.S. Embassy attache who's claimed 'diplomatic immunity,' despite a ruling by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant tribunal ordering her to pay.

Where are the lines when it comes to diplomatic immunity? Can you really park wherever you want? Can you get out of paying rent?

Those questions came into focus this week after an Ottawa landlord went public with his struggle to get rent payments out of a woman who works at the U.S. Embassy.

Landlord Rolf Baumann took Betsy Zouroudis, who works at the embassy, to court and won a judgement ordering her to pay rent — but her lawyer argued "diplomatic immunity" meant she didn't have to pay.

Not what it's intended for

John Packer, director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre and an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, has worked overseas for a variety of international organizations and held diplomatic immunity at times.

It looks not consistent with either the object of diplomatic law or good relations.- John Packer

Packer said this case isn't what diplomatic immunity is intended for.  

"On the face of it, it looks not consistent with either the object of diplomatic law or good relations," he said in an interview with CBC. "It seems doubtful that it's a valid invocation of the immunity."

In the Aug. 14 decision by Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board, Zouroudis was ordered to pay Baumann $8,625 for two months of unpaid rent and legal fees.

But instead of getting a cheque, Baumann received a letter from Zouroudis's lawyer stating that the order doesn't apply.

Packer said just because diplomats have immunity — which it's unclear if Zouroudis even has — doesn't mean she should be flouting a court order like this.

He said when he held immunity, he didn't use it to get out of fines or bills.

'Respect the law'

"You're supposed to pay your bills and respect the law," he said.  "I always paid my rent and every other bill."

Packer also said immunity is important and should not be abused.  

"It's important for the conduct of international relations that people really do have genuine protection for the real conduct of international relations."

Packer stressed he didn't know all the details of the case, but said it's important for diplomats to respect the rules or the system won't work for anyone.  

"The ultimate problem is that no one will rent."