A June 2023 UK Supreme Court judgment reaffirmed the general principle that, unless the contrary is expressly enacted or so plainly implied that the courts must give effect to it, legislation is applicable only to persons in the country or doing business in the country in a way that subjects the person to local jurisdiction. Extraterritorially effective jurisdiction is possible if the terms of the legislation cannot effectually be applied or its purpose cannot be achieved unless it has extraterritorial effect or the legislation gives effect to a policy that the particular legislature must have intended to apply beyond the borders of the country. There are, for instance, laws like the British corruption laws and the EU General Data Protection Rules that are deliberately applied to foreign persons who do business with those jurisdictions.

This principle represents a longstanding practice that a high threshold needs to be overcome in order to apply legislation extraterritorially. It arises out of the mutual respect between states and demonstrates that the extraterritorial application of legislation to another country would infringe the sovereignty of that other state in violation of international law.

The UK court held that the UK Equality Act 2010 did not apply to a decision affecting the rights of a woman currently living in Lebanon who was a refugee from the conflict in Syria who claimed to be entitled to live in the UK under their resettlement scheme. There was no indication in the Act that the legislation conferred rights on people all over the world to challenge the decision-making process of a UK public body exercising its functions, even if that exercise of the functions affected them.

These principles are applied in South Africa.

There is sometimes an informal extraterritorial consequence of a foreign person contravening a local law. For instance, the misconduct of a foreign entity authorised to act as a financial services provider in South Africa which has no presence here would be reported to its own regulator by the South African regulator if they contravene local laws.

[R v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] UKSC 23]