Legal expenses insurance to protect your UN career
Legal expenses insurance is a class of insurance that covers your legal costs in case of an unforeseen employment law matter. Such costs normally include a lawyer’s fees and related legal expenses.
Did you know that legal expenses insurance is available for employment law disputes in your workplace at the United Nations or other international organizations?
If you do not have legal expenses insurance, this article is for you.
Why staff members and consultants need legal insurance
Having legal expenses insurance covering employment law matters at your workplace offers you the same peace of mind as other forms of insurance (health, dental, property, life and travel insurance). If something unfavorable happens at work, you can get legal help.
Given that you will spend more time at your job than in the hospital or the dentist chair, it makes good sense (and good career sense) to invest in protecting your career.
Unfortunately, staff members of international organizations often only think about legal insurance after they approach a lawyer. At this moment, the dispute may have already started, and the staff member might face deadlines, stress and be in urgent need for help.
During a consultation, a lawyer will try to understand whether your case is winnable, how much effort is required to help you and whether you can pay their fee.
If you have legal expenses insurance, the last question can usually be answered positively because the insurance provider should cover the lawyer’s fees.
What happens when staff members do not have legal insurance
In the UN workplace, the unfortunate reality is that claiming your rights can be costly. Many staff members and consultants choose not to defend their rights because they cannot afford a lawyer.
For staff members who can self-fund a lawyer’s costs, they may be required to advance money to the attorney as a retainer to prove their ability to settle fees. This can lead to hardship and personal sacrifice.
Others have no choice but to rely on an international organization’s legal assistance program - where such programs exist. While the lawyers of these programs are competent, they have resource and time constraints and may not be available when you need them. They may not be able to provide you with personal service.
In other instances, staff members try to resolve the case on their own (i.e. pro se) or with the help of a colleague, which can lead to mistakes and additional pressure.
In short, if you have legal expenses insurance, you are much more likely to be able to obtain competent legal advice.
How can you obtain legal expenses insurance covering your employment with the United Nations and other international organizations?
Does your Staff Association offer legal expenses insurance?
Did you know that some organization’s staff association or staff council provide legal expenses insurance as a benefit to members?
If they provide this benefit, you should be encouraged but don’t forget to ask basic questions.
You should ask your staff representative about:
- whether there are additional costs or co-payments required,
- what is the maximum amount of legal expenses that can be covered under the policy, and
- whether the association allows members to benefit from it automatically or if there are restrictions to coverage.
A frequent restriction is that legal fees might only be covered if a legal dispute reaches an appeal. Sometimes legal fees can only be reimbursed in the insurance company considers that your case is winnable or if the staff association believes it is of benefit to the entire association.
In practice, these restrictions are sometimes applied by the association or by the insurance provider.
If you are a consultant of an international organization, you also need to ask if this benefit even applies to you. Unfortunately, consultants are frequently excluded from coverage.
If your staff association offers legal insurance as a benefit, you should thank them for providing the service!
If not, you should encourage them to consider offering it. The Federation of International Civil Servants Association (FICSA)* is a great resource for staff associations about legal insurance.
Legal expenses insurances as an individual
Another option is to take out legal expenses insurance directly with an insurance provider.
There are many insurance companies (Generali, CAP and AXA-ARAG are a few examples) that offer legal expenses insurance.
The key question to ask is whether they will cover personnel of international organizations in legal disputes that are resolved by your organization's appeal body or administrative tribunal (ILOAT, UNAT or others) and not a national court. Unfortunately, many insurance companies will only offer legal expenses insurance coverage for cases that will be settled in a national court. Therefore, you could find yourself in a position where you have taken out a policy but cannot use it to address a dispute with your employer - unless the employer can be sued in a national court.
Even if the coverage applies to administrative tribunals like the ILOAT, you also need to be sure that the cover will apply to you and acts that occur in your duty station, wherever that may be.
If you are able to find a policy, they are generally affordable and some have no deductible and no minimum disputed sum. This means that disputes that are difficult to quantify (such as the loss of a promotion or being harassed by a supervisor) could be covered. Some companies are able to write an individual insurance policy; others can only insure large groups of staff members.
A few things to keep in mind:
- International organizations are almost always “immune” from being sued in a national court because of privileges and immunities. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that your insurance contract does not limit coverage only to legal disputes in a national court. This needs to be reflected in the contract.
- You must be sure that the policy does not exclude disputes based on location (i.e. if you travel often for official business) or if you foresee being reassigned to a new duty station.
- The policy insures you as soon as you take out the contract.
- If the legal issue arose before you took out the policy, the insurance policy might not cover your legal expenses.
- The policy should let you choose your own lawyer. After all, your lawyer must not only communicate well with you, but he or she must also have knowledge of employment disputes in international organizations.
- If you do obtain legal expenses insurance, the policy often covers other everyday legal disputes such as in landlord/tenant matters, tax law and civil damages claims. This is a great benefit.
Every employee of an international organization should consider securing legal expenses insurance. Consider it as an investment in your career!
During your career, you may work in several countries, with different teams and report to various supervisors – all within a multicultural environment. You may face high expectations and competing demands, coupled with limited resources. This can increase the likelihood of workplace conflicts.
If a conflict disrupts your work life, a lawyer can help you resolve it by raising issues in a formal way (such as through an appeal or a complaint) or informally. If you are a manager and colleagues under your supervisions have raised a complaint about your conduct, you may want to consult an attorney independent of your organization for advice.
If you have been requested to participate in a workplace investigation as a complainant, witness or a subject, an attorney can fully inform you about the process, your rights and any risks.
It is important for individuals who have been accused of misconduct to seek legal advice as early as possible. This is because workplace investigations can result in severe disciplinary sanctions, up to and including termination of employment and even the referral of possible criminal matters to national authorities. There is no guarantee that anyone within the organization will be looking out for your rights.
Changes to Employment Conditions
When you face changes to your employment conditions such as being offered a new job or being denied a contractual right, an attorney can review the matter and help protect your rights.
Blowing the whistle on improper or illegal workplace conduct is the right thing to do, but there are risks involved. These risks include retaliation from employees who engaged in the misconduct or sometimes from the employer itself. Whistle-blowers can also be exposed to liability, including allegations that they themselves have acted improperly. A lawyer can assist an employee to blow the whistle safely and effectively.
Concerns about a selection process
If you have been passed over for a new job and have concerns that the selection process was flawed, a lawyer can advise whether you could successfully challenge it.
*The above is based on my article 'Why you will benefit from legal expenses insurance' (FICSA Magazine, Special Edition, February 2020) and provided here with permission.