Seafarers’ Wages Bill: Are Good Intentions Enough?

In March 2022 P&O Ferries made 786 seafarers redundant, without prior notice or consultation. The company also announced its decision to move to a new crewing model using agency workers who would be paid less than the NMW. In doing so, P&O Ferries openly took advantage of gaps in national and international legislation governing seafarers’ wages.

In the UK, for example, the NMW, which was first introduced by the NMW Act 1998, applies to anyone employed to work on board a ship registered in the UK, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK, or the person is not ordinarily resident in the UK.[1] The right to be paid the NMW also applies to all individuals working in the territorial waters of the UK or in the UK sector of the continental shelf, provided they were not employed in connection with a ship which is exercising the right of innocent passage or the right of transit passage, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or a ship which is engaged in dredging or fishing.[2]

What this effectively means is that seafarers working on board vessels serving domestic UK routes have a right to be paid the NMW, regardless of the flag of their vessel and even if they are not ordinarily resident in the UK. However, the NMW still does not apply to seafarers working on board ships serving international routes unless their ship is flagged in the UK, and they are ordinarily resident in the UK.

At an international level, on the other hand, the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, although it includes a series of provisions regarding the seafarers’ right to be paid for their services,[3] it does not make any binding provisions regarding the right to be paid minimum wages. In fact, the MLC is limited to set guidance as to the procedures for determining minimum wages for seafarers and the minimum monthly basic rate of pay for able seafarers working on ships operating worldwide.[4]

In response to the P&O Ferries redundancies, the UK government announced, amongst other things, its intention to change the law so that seafarers working on ships that regularly use UK ports are paid at least equivalent to the UK NMW. Following a consultation from 10 May to 7 June 2022,[5] the UK government introduced the Seafarers’ Wages Bill to the House of Lords on 6 July 2022. The Bill, which had its first reading in the House of Commons on 8 November 2022, aims to ensure that seafarers with close ties to the UK are paid at least an equivalent to the UK NMW while they are in UK waters, and contains 15 provisions.

Cl. 1 to 2 set out the scope of application. Cl. 3 to 6 establish the obligation of ship operators to make NMW equivalence declarations to harbour authorities. Cl. 7 to 9 set out the powers of harbour authorities to impose surcharges and access restrictions where ship operators have not provided a valid NMW equivalence declaration. Cl. 10 sets out the power of the Secretary of State to institute proceedings relating to offences under this Bill. Cl. 11 to 12 deal with the powers of the Secretary of State to issue guidance, directions, and regulations. Cl. 13 and 14 define terms used in the Bill, including the terms harbour and harbour authorities. Cl. 15 deals with the extent and the commencement of the provisions of the Bill.

In essence, if the Bill passes it will create a system by virtue of which harbour authorities will have the power to request ship operators, the vessels of whom use their harbours at least 120 times a year, to provide a declaration that their seafarers are paid at a rate at least equivalent to the NMW for their work in the UK or its territorial waters if they do not already qualify for the NMW.[6] In addition, harbour authorities will be able to impose a surcharge on ship operators who fail to provide a valid NMW equivalence declaration.[7] The amount of the surcharge is to be determined by a tariff of surcharges specified by harbour authorities in accordance with regulations issued by the Secretary of State.[8] A surcharge paid by ship operators may be retained and used by harbour authorities for the purposes of any of their functions or for the creation of shore-based welfare facilities for seafarers.[9] Finally, subject to very few exceptions, harbour authorities will be entitled to refuse access to their harbours if ship operators fail to pay the surcharge.[10]

Apart from the powers vested on harbour authorities, the Bill will also create a dedicated enforcement system, allowing the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to play a role in checking the validity of NMW equivalence declarations.[11] The inspectors will have powers to board a ship in a harbour in the UK or to enter any premises for the purposes of determining whether ship operators comply with any NMW equivalence declarations, or of verifying information provided to ensure compliance with these declarations.[12]

So far, the Bill has been received with scepticism. The UK Chamber of Shipping, for example, commented that the Bill could potentially undermine existing international agreements.[13] Similarly, the British Ports Association raised concerns about the compatibility of the Bill with international treaties, as well as the suitability of ports to regulate the wages of port-users.[14] Nautilus, on the other hand, pointed out that the Bill could potentially lead to ship operators ‘port hopping’ to avoid having to pay seafarers the equivalent of the NMW.[15]

Despite its good intentions, the potential impact of the Bill on underpaid seafarers working on board ships serving international routes could be minimal. First, as it was commented by Nautilus, the requirement that a ship must enter a harbour at least 120 occasions in the year for the NMW equivalence declaration to apply means that unscrupulous ship operators can easily bypass regulation by shifting their services between different ports. As the Bill appears, this is an unavoidable risk. It is the author’s view that this risk could only be avoided by a more centralised regulatory approach which would not depend entirely on casting powers on individual harbour authorities. Secondly, the fact that ship operators who fail to provide a valid NMW equivalence declaration will still be able to use a harbour if they pay a surcharge undermines the whole purpose of the Bill. This is because ship operators with significant financial means will be able to buy themselves out of regulation. After all, this is exactly what P&O Ferries did when they dismissed 786 seafarers without prior notice or consultation. Finally, adding yet another issue on the agenda of port inspectors without conducting structural changes on the way port inspections are carried out can only be of minimal practical significance when it comes to the protection of the seafarers’ employment rights.


[1] NMW Act 1998, s 40.

[2] NMW (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020, s 2.

[3] MLC, Regulation 2.2. See also MLC, Standard A2.2.

[4] MLC, Guidelines B2.2.3 and B2.2.4.

[5] Department for Transport, Consultation outcome: Conditions for harbour access and seafarers’ pay-rates: scope and compliance, 10 May 2022 < https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1088162/seafarers-wages-consultation-gov-response.pdf> accessed 7 December 2022.

[6] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 3.

[7] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 7.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 9.

[11] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 6.

[12] ibid.

[13] UK Chamber of Shipping, ‘Seafarers’ Wages Bill’ (6 July 2022) <https://ukchamberofshipping.com/latest/seafarers-wages-bill-/> accessed 7 December 2022.

[14] British Ports Association, ‘ BPA Reacts to New Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill’ (10 May 2022) <https://www.britishports.org.uk/bpa-reacts-to-new-harbours-seafarers-remuneration-bill/> accessed 7 December 2022.

[15] Nautilus, ‘First reading of Seafarers’ Wages Bill’ (7 September 2022) < https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/first-reading-of-seafarers-wages-bill/> accessed 7 December 2022.

What is the contract of carriage of goods by sea? Booking note or sea waybill?

Poralu Marine Australia Pty Ltd v MV Dijksgracht – [2022] FCA 1038 is an interesting case from the Federal Court of Australia on identifying what constitutes the contract of carriage of goods by sea,and what terms are applicable to that contract. It will not necessarily be the transport document that is issued on loading, in this case a sea waybill.

Between 6 and 11 December 2019, 23 pontoons and 11 pallets were loaded on board the motor vessel Dijksgracht at the port of Cork, Ireland, as breakbulk cargo. The cargo  of 23 pontoons and 11 pallets was loaded at Cork on The Dijksgracht and was consigned to Poralu Marine Australia Pty Ltd, for installation at the Royal Geelong Yacht Club. The cargo was discharged on or about 13 February 2020 at Geelong and it was alleged that three pontoons were discharged damaged having been loaded in sound condition. Poralu brought actions in bailment and negligence against the shipowner, RT, in rem and against ST as carrier, in personam

The carriage agreement began with a series of emails between Poralu and ST, between 7 and 9 November 2019, culminating in an unsigned booking note issued by ST which Poralu accepted on 20 November 2019.  The booking note, which provided that it was to “prevail over any previous arrangements”, was accepted by Poralu on 20 November 2019. After loading ST issued a sea waybill was issued acknowledging receipt of the cargo in good order and condition. The sea waybill contained a “Himalaya Clause” under which RD as owner was entitled to the benefit of:

Poralu alleged that the cargo was loaded on board the vessel in sound condition and that three pontoons were found to have been damaged when the cargo was discharged. Poralu commenced two actions for damages arising from the alleged damage to the cargo, both in bailment and the tort of negligence. The first action was in rem against the vessel and its owner, said to be Dijksgracht CV (DCV), a Netherlands company. The second was an action in personam against Spliethoff Transport (ST) as carrier and Rederij Dijksgracht (RD), said to be the shipowner.

An issue arose as to the applicable limitation figure in respect of the three damaged pontoons. Poralu asserted that the contract of carriage was concluded in the recap in the emails, so that there was a binding arrangement in advance of the acceptance of the booking note. On that basis the contract was subject to and incorporated the Australian Hague Rules and that it was a term of the contract of carriage that a bill of lading would be issued to Poralu in respect of the cargo either immediately or on request. Under the Australian Hague Rules the limitation figure would be that in the 1979 SDR Protocol to the Hague-Visby Rules.

The two defendants denied negligence and claimed that the contract of carriage was subject to the terms and conditions of ST’s booking note which applied the law of the Netherlands and incorporated the terms of Articles I-VIII of the Hague Rules 1924 and therefore excluded the operation of the Australian Hague Rules under  the Carriage of Goods by Sea Amendment Act 1997 (Cth) and the Carriage of Goods by Sea Regulations 1998 (Cth). The booking note stated specifically that liability was limited to £100 lawful money of the UK per package or unit. ST and RD argued that the Hague Rules had been incorporated and that such incorporation excluded the application of the Australian Hague Rules.

 Stewart J held that the liability of ST was limited to £100 UK money per package, and that applied to the claims in bailment and negligence. The court’s starting point was that the Australian conflict of laws rule for determining the question whether a contract was concluded is the law of the forum (in contrast to the English conflict rule which applies the law of the putative contract). A binding contract had not been concluded at the end of the initial email exchanges but came into being with the acceptance of ST’s booking note which contained all of the terms previously agreed in the recap and filled in the gaps, so that it constituted an offer capable of acceptance, and it was immaterial that it was unsigned. The booking note anticipated the issue of a bill of lading or a sea waybill, and provided that the booking note would prevail over the terms of such a document. The sea waybill that was issued made no change in the contractual relationship. The sea waybill was not a contractual document at all but a receipt only, as was the case with the bill of lading received by the fob charterer in The Dunelmia. The overriding clause in the booking note meant that the terms of the booking note prevailed over the sea waybill. Further, the booking note, which had been found by the court to be a contractual document, preceded the shipment of the cargo, whereas the sea waybill was only agreed and issued long after the cargo had been shipped

Applying Dutch law, to which the booking note was subject, the Hague-Visby Rules were not applicable. The Dutch law experts disagreed regarding the application of the Hague-Visby Rules where the carrier and the shipowner did not agree, when concluding the contract, whether or not a bill of lading or sea waybill will eventually be issued. They disagreed about whether the mere existence of the unexercised right of the shipper to demand a bill of lading (pursuant to Art 3(3) of the Rules or Art 8:399 of the DCC) was sufficient for the material application of the Rules or whether the shipper had actually to exercise its right to demand a bill of lading. The experts agreed that that question was undecided by the Dutch courts. However, assuming that the shipper’s right to demand a bill triggered the issue of the Hague-Visby Rules, the Hague-Visby Rules could not operate on the facts of this case. Ireland was not a contracting state so such a possible bill of lading would not have been issued in a contracting state nor would there be carriage was from a contracting state. As regards Article X(c) whereby the Rules apply to a bill of lading relating to the carriage of goods between ports in two different states if “the contract contained in or evidenced by the bill of lading provides that the rules of this Convention or legislation of any State giving effect to them are to govern the contract” Poralu relied on the standard bill of lading terms that ST would have used had a bill of lading been issued. That would have contained the following clause paramount:

1    Except in case of US Trade, the Hague Rules contained in the International Convention for the Unification of certain rules relating to Bills of Lading, dated Brussels, 25th August 1924, as enacted in the country of shipment, shall apply to this Bill of Lading.

2    If no such enactment is in force in the country of shipment, the articles I-VIII inclusive of the said Convention shall apply.

3    In trades where the International Brussels Convention 1924 as amended by the Protocols signed at Brussels on 23 February 1968 and 21 December 1979 (the Hague-Visby Rules) apply compulsorily, the provisions of the Hague-Visby Rules shall be considered incorporated in this Bill of Lading.

….

5    If the Hague Rules are applicable otherwise than by national law, in determining the liability of the Carrier, the liability shall in no event exceed £100 (GBP) sterling lawful money of the United Kingdom per package or unit.

Since the Hague Rules were not enacted in Ireland, the first sentence of the paramount clause had no application, and the second sentence applied. Since the paramount clause in the present case here referred separately and deliberately to the Hague Rules and the Hague-Visby Rules, the conclusion in The Superior Pescadores was inapplicable

Neither did the Hague-Visby Rules apply by virtue of the Australian legislation under which the booking note would be regarded as a charterparty (in this case a “space” or “slot” charter) over which the Rules would apply only where a sea carriage document was issued for the carriage. The booking note here was a charterparty, but the sea waybill was not a sea carriage document in that it was a mere receipt and was not negotiable. Accordingly the parties’ agreement on limitation remained applicable. Stewart J rejected Poralu’s argument that as they had a contractual right to demand a bill of lading then the contract of carriage was a contract covered by, relevantly, “a sea carriage document”. It was doubtful whether a contract of carriage is “covered by” a sea carriage document when the document in question, whether actually issued or merely the subject of a right of demand to be issued, did not or would not contain or evidence the contract.

Finally, RD were entitled to rely on the £100 package limitation in the booking note by virtue of its Himalaya clause. The clause satisfied all four of Lord Reid’s conditions set out in Midland Silicones v Scruttons  and Stewart J rejected Poralu’s argument that the clause did not satisfy the third element, in that the carrier had not had authority from the third party to contract as agent. The evidence showed that RD and ST were parties to a pooling agreement under which ST had to use all reasonable endeavours to protect and promote the interests of pool members. The pooling agreement conferred the necessary authority.

The Gencon 2022 Charterparty: Striking A Balance

Clause 2 of Gencon 1994 first saw light of day in the 1922 charter and is the product of the thinking of an era that predates the Hague Rules when freedom of contract reigned supreme and carriers were able to include in contracts of carriage clauses that exempted them from liability for practically anything. Consequently, many people and certainly most charterers, now consider the clause to be completely out of touch with modern industry practices and current legislation. By way of contrast, and perhaps not surprisingly, many owners continue to value the wide protection that they believe it affords against liability. However, the reality is that the clause does not really meet the needs of either party and can give rise to some unforeseen and highly unwelcome surprises. Consequently, it is not really satisfactory for either the charterers or the shipowners.

It does not meet the charterers’ needs since it provides the shipowners with a very wide defence for cargo claims. In a nutshell, the Owners are not liable unless there is personal negligence on the part of the higher management of the company [1]. Equally, it does not satisfy the shipowners because protection is limited to claims for physical loss or damage to the goods or for delay in delivering the goods, and the clause provides no defence for other claims relating to purely financial loss, such as a failure to load a full cargo or for delay in arriving at the loadport [2].

These deficiencies have been recognised for many years and the industry has tended to adopt a rough and ready solution by simply replacing Clause 2 with a Paramount Clause that is perceived to introduce greater balance in the form of the Hague or Hague-Visby Rules. However, the weakness of this “broad brush” solution has been repeatedly recognised by the English courts. For example, it has been said that:

The courts have not found it easy to make sense of the Hague Rules in the context of a charter-party since clearly these rules were not designed to be incorporated in such a contract.[3]

and

 “[A] very slapdash way of doing things.”[4]

Consequently, the BIMCO sub-committee concluded that the insertion of a Paramount Clause was really no more than a “sticking plaster” solution in that it papered over some of the fault but failed to provide a satisfactory balanced solution.

A Paramount Clause clearly improves the charterers’ chances of making a recovery from the shipowners but makes the shipowners’ duty to exercise due diligence to make the ship seaworthy a continuing one that could potentially extend to all time “before” the commencement of the voyage[5], and which could, therefore, cover a very substantial time before the arrival of the ship at the loadport. It is also unclear whether the Rules provide the owners with protection in all jurisdictions against purely financial loss such as delay either in arriving at the loadport or in performing the laden voyage.

Therefore, the more balanced remedy favoured by the sub-committee was for the new clause 2 of Gencon 2022 to mirror the general approach of the Hague-Visby Rules and

(1)       firstly, place on the shipowners duties that are the equivalent of the non-delegable ones that apply under the Hague-Visby Rules to exercise due diligence to provide a seaworthy ship and to properly and carefully care for the cargo, but to restrict the applicability of the seaworthiness obligation to the two points in time that matter for the charterers, namely, the loading of the cargo and the commencement of the laden voyage; and

(2)       secondly, enable the shipowners to rely on all those rights, defences, immunities, time bars and limitations of liability that are available to a “Carrier” under the Hague-Visby Rules and to make such protection applicable to claims for loss, damage, delay or failure in performance of whatsoever nature. As is the case under the Hague-Visby Rules, these various rights, defences, immunities, time bars and limitations of liability fall into two categories: those that are applicable in any event regardless of breach, such as the time limit for claims under Art III Rule 6, and those that are available only if the shipowner has satisfied his obligations as to seaworthiness, such as those listed under Art IV Rule 2.

Because this new approach is substantially different from that which has been adopted in prior versions of Gencon, the sub-committee thought it prudent to circulate its proposals to the shipping industry before proceeding to a conclusion and received a more or less unanimous approval of its proposals. It is also noteworthy that the International Group of P&I Clubs has confirmed that the new clause 2 should not prejudice Club cover.

Finally, since one of the criticisms of Gencon 1994 is that, unlike many other charters, it does not include an exception clause that protects the rights of charterers, the sub-committee recommended that the new charter should include such a clause. There was some discussion as to whether the charter should include the new BIMCO Force Majeure Clause 2022. However, the sub-committee concluded that such clause was more suited to a time charter than a voyage charter and the industry consultation process supported that view. Consequently, it was decided to include a General Exception Clause of the type that is commonly seen in other voyage charters, and such a clause is now found in Clause 18 of Gencon 2022 thereby ensuring that it is a more balanced charter party.


[1] See, for example, the “Brabant” (1965) 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 546

[2] See, for example, the “Dominator” (1959) 1 Lloyd’s Rep 125 and the discussion in para 11.68 of Voyage Charters (3rd ed)

[3] Per Saville J in the “Standard Ardour” (1988) 2 Lloyd’s Rep 159

[4] Per Devlin J in the “Saxon Star” (1957) 2 Lloyd’s Rep 271

[5] See Art III Rule of the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules

Representing the Institute of International Shipping and Trade Law, Professor Richard Williams was a member of the BIMCO Sub-committee that has produced the new Gencon 2022.

Claims against time charterers for damage to ship, caused by damage to cargo, not subject to limitation under 1976 LLMC.

In  July 2012 while under charter to MSC from the owner Conti, the MSC Flaminia suffered an explosion which killed five of her crew, and one crew member was never found.  Hundreds of containers were destroyed and extensive damage was caused to the ship. The explosion was caused by auto-polymerisation of the contents of one or more of three tank containers laden with 80% divinylbenzene (‘DVB’) which  had been shipped at New Orleans on 1 July 2012. In a series of arbitration awards MSC was held liable to Conti in respect of the casualty, and Conti was awarded damages of c.US$200 million on a quantification by the arbitrators of its recoverable losses.

In June 2020 MSC commenced an Admiralty limitation claim under the 1976 LLMC as amended by the 1996 Protocol which came before Andrew Baker J who gave judgment at the start of this month, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company SA v Stolt Tank Containers BV & Ors [2022] EWHC 2746 (Admlty) (02 November 2022)

There were three defendants two Stolt companies (the first and second defendants, ‘Stolt’), Stolt having been the road carrier of the DVB tank containers to New Orleans, and vis-à-vis MSC the shippers of those containers onto MSC Flaminia, claimants other than Stolt in a claim brought by cargo claimants whose bill of lading claims against MSC were subject to English law and jurisdiction, and Conti, the shipowner.

Conti’s claims included ship repair costs, payments to public authorities in Belgium, France, the UK and Germany following the casualty and also the costs of and associated with removing the waste from the ship. Could MSC limit in respect of these claims? This involved a question of whether the effect of the phrase ‘consequential loss’ in Article 2(1)(a). Where losses caused by damage to the cargo were losses which Conti was required to incur in order to repair the ship, could Conti’s claims in respect of those losses be characterised as claims in respect of damage to the ship or consequential losses resulting from such damage and if so, did it follow that those claims could not be limited under Article 2(1)(a)?

Claims for consequential loss had been found to be limitable in The Aegean Sea  and The APK Sydney. Andrew Baker J, considered that the lost profits claims in The Aegean Sea, were claims for consequential loss resulting from the environmental damage, and the lost profits claims in The APL Sydney, had been claims for consequential loss resulting from the pipeline damage, where the relevant property damage occurred in direct connection with the operation of the ship in question, and was not damage to the ship herself. Those claims as made against the owner were limitable, and similarly the claim by the owner to pass those claims on to the charterer.

However that was not the case in the instant case, which involved claims in respect of damage to the ship which were not limitable, as held by the Court of Appeal in The CMA Djakarta , approved obiter by the Supreme Court in The Ocean Victory. The fact that it could be said, in point of fact, that all the damage to the ship can be traced back, by a chain of causation, to loss of or damage to the DVB that exploded, did not mean that a claim by Conti for compensation for damage to the ship was a claim in respect of loss of or damage to the DVB (or consequential loss resulting therefrom). The causal connection on the facts did not turn a claim for damaging the ship into a cargo claim. Conti’s claim against MSC, established in the arbitration, did not seek to enforce a right of redress in respect of loss of or damage to cargo, but rather a right of redress in respect of the risk of harm to the ship that had been posed by the cargo, and the damage the ship suffered when that risk eventuated

MSC also claimed that costs incurred by Conti related to the removal or destruction of cargo waste, burned or unburned were limitable under Article 2(1)(e), as claims “in respect of the removal, destruction or the rendering harmless of the cargo of the ship”. This claim was also found not to be limitable. The ordinary meaning of Article 2.1(d)/(e), is that tonnage limitation is to apply in respect of liabilities such as might be incurred by an owner for casualty intervention or aftermath liabilities of the kinds indicated, i.e. wreck removal (etc.) (Article 2.1(d)) and cargo removal, destruction or neutralisation (Article 2.1(e)). Conti’s claim for reimbursement of or damages in respect of the cost of cargo handling due to MSC’s breach in loading dangerous cargo was not a claim in respect of the removal, destruction or rendering harmless of cargo within Article 2.1(e). Nor could the claims be limitable to the extent that the relevant costs related to the removal or destruction of cargo waste, burned or unburned as they were to be characterised as claims in respect of damage to the ship or for consequential losses resulting from such damage.

As regards Conti’s costs cost incurred in disposing of the firefighting water these were not limitable under Article 2.1(f) as the claim was not distinct from the non-limitable category of claims in respect of the loss of or damage to the ship.

Effectively, all Conti’s claims related to damage to the ship and the fact that had occurred due to the damage to the cargo in the explosion did not mean that the claim was one relating to damage to cargo. All the claims were claims for damage to the ship and were not subject to limitation.

International Maritime Law Moot 2023 held at Wales by IISTL

It is a great pleasure to announce that famous “International Maritime Law Moot” is now coming to UK and Wales (Swansea) in the current academic year (1-6 July 2023)!

We shall be delighted to host mooting teams from all corners of the globe at HRC Law School at Swansea! This is promising to be a big one and how fitting it is that the main partner is the Institute of International Shipping & Trade Law– a global leader in terms of maritime and commercial law education and training!

We hope universities from all continents will put forward a team and details of the event can be found:
https://lnkd.in/ex7YNeCc

We are also grateful to HFW for agreeing to be the main sponsor for the event.

The preliminary rounds will be held at Swansea with the final in London. The award ceremony will be held in the offices of HFW (in London) on 6 July.

Please join us at Swansea!

ANTI-SUIT INJUNCTIONS: BACK IN STOCK?

On 18 November 2022, the English High Court handed down a judgment in Ebury Partners Belgium SA v Technical Touch BV [2022] EWHC 2927 (Comm) in favour of an anti-suit injunction against the Belgian proceedings breaching the English exclusive jurisdiction agreement. Mr. Justice Jacobs provided some welcome clarification and confirmation of the principles applicable upon breaches of exclusive jurisdiction agreements in the altered legal landscape post-Brexit. Indeed, the decision might be considered a continuing development following the anti-suit injunction granted by the English Commercial Court against the Spanish court proceedings in QBE Europe SA/NV and another v. Generali Espana de Seguros y Reaseguros [2022] EWHC 2062 (Comm).

A brief glimpse of the factual background

The dispute arose between Ebury Partners Belgium SA/NV (Claimant) and Technical Touch and Jan Berthels (Defendants) in April 2021 following their Relationship Agreement for foreign exchange currency services which was consented to electronically through the claimant’s website. The hyperlink attached to the box ticked by Mr. Berthels (director of the company) would have taken onto the webpage containing a pdf file with the terms and conditions of the claimant applicable to their business dealings. Indeed, Clause 27 entitled “Other important terms” included governing law and exclusive jurisdiction clauses as follows:

“[27.11] This Agreement and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with it or its subject matter or formation, interpretation, performance and/or termination (including non-contractual disputes or claims) shall be exclusively governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales.

[27.12] Each party irrevocably agrees that the courts of England shall have exclusive jurisdiction to settle any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with this Agreement or its subject matter or formation, interpretation, performance and/or termination (including non-contractual disputes or claims). For such purposes, each party irrevocably submits to the jurisdiction of the English courts and waives any objection to the exercise of such jurisdiction. Each party also irrevocably waives any objection to the recognition or enforcement in the courts of any other country of a judgment delivered by an English court exercising jurisdiction pursuant to this Clause 27.12.”

The parties further concluded a Guarantee Agreement signed by Mr. Berthels as a guarantor regarding TT’s obligations to Ebury. The latter agreement also contained English law and choice of court clauses as follows:

“[15] This guarantee and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with it or its subject matter or formation (including non-contractual disputes or claims) shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with, the law of England and Wales. If any provision hereof or part thereof shall be held invalid or unenforceable no other provisions hereof shall be affected and all such other provisions shall remain in full force and effect.

[16] Each party irrevocably agrees that subject as provided below, the courts of England and Wales shall have exclusive jurisdiction over any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with this guarantee or its subject matter or formation (including non-contractual disputes or claims). Nothing in this clause shall limit the right of Ebury to take proceedings against the Guarantor in any other court of competent jurisdiction, nor shall the taking of proceedings in any one or more jurisdictions preclude the taking of proceedings in any other jurisdictions, whether concurrently or not, to the extent permitted by the law of such other jurisdiction.”

When TT failed to pay a margin call and further sums under their Relationship Agreement and no amicable settlement was achieved, TT brought the Belgian proceedings to seek negative declaratory relief and challenge the validity of the two agreements under Belgian law. In response to the Belgian proceedings, Ebury brought an action in England as agreed between the parties. In addition, Ebury also applied for a grant of an anti-suit injunction in breach of the exclusive jurisdiction clause.

A short recap of the judge’s legal reasoning and decision

As expressed by Mr. Justice Jacobs, the arguments brought by the parties – Ebury’s application for an anti-suit order, and the Defendants’ applications challenging the court’s jurisdiction or inviting the court not to exercise it, were pretty much different sides of the same coin.

Indeed, by considering the claimant’s application first, the judge swept away the defendant’s counter arguments. It was emphasised that, while it would not have been possible to grant an anti-suit relief upon the presence of the proceedings at an English and any other European Member State court pre-Brexit, the principles applicable upon such a request were already well-settled. In this context, the court particularly underlined Mr. Justice Foxton’s reasonings in QBE Europe SA/NV v Generali España de Seguros Y Reaseguros [2022] EWHC 2062 (Comm) at para [10]. Indeed, the judgment was based on Section 37(1) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 giving power to the court to grant an anti-suit injunction for restraining foreign proceedings when it was required by the ends of justice, therefore, was “just and convenient”, furthermore, a “high degree of probability” about the existence of a jurisdiction was established.

Being the touchstone of the reasoning, and referring to already established prior authorities, the judge rejected the defendants’ application challenging the English court’s jurisdiction and seeking a stay or a relief to that end. It was confirmed that there was a good arguable case for service out (in line with CPR 6.33 (2B) (b), also pursuant to the application of the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements 2005) and the English court had exclusive jurisdiction per the agreements between the parties.  Accordingly, there were no strong reasons for the English court to decline its jurisdiction – in contrast, the court was bound to accept its jurisdiction per Article 5 of the Convention.

Significance of the judgment

This decision is of high importance for several reasons: It reiterates the emphasis that has been traditionally placed on party autonomy and authentic consent in English law and practice be it in a conventional or an electronic form by incorporation of the standard terms and conditions which would bring a useful reference point for businesses.  Indeed, the Court asserted the principles of English law regarding the dealings in e-commerce and particularly click-wrap agreements.

The judgment also reasserts the termination of the prior authorities preventing the English courts from granting anti-suit injunctions against the proceedings at the European Member State courts (re: West Tankers and Turner Grovit). Indeed, the judgment follows up the Qbe reasoning which was a grand opening of a fresh chapter for anti-suit reliefs post-Brexit. It is worth noting that the availability of such reliefs might also stimulate the European courts to issue similar orders against the English courts bringing the effects of a double-edged sword.

Last but not least, the high value of the judgment derives also from the fact that it addresses the Hague Choice of Court Agreement 2005. While there is still an unreasonable lack of relevant authorities referring to this global convention, the judgment brings hope about more case law and precedents built upon by virtue of the HCCCA 2005.   

We shall ‘overcome’ – through offering non contractual performance.

MUR Shipping BV v RTI Ltd [2022] EWHC 467 (Comm) raised the question of whether the effect of financial sanctions obliges a contractual party to accept payment in a currency other than that specified in the contract, which has now come before the Court of Appeal [2022] EWCA Civ 1406.

Mur Shipping BV (“the Owners” or “MUR”) concluded a Contract of Affreightment (“COA”) with RTI Ltd (“the Charterers” or “RTI”) in June 2016. Under the COA, the Charterers contracted to ship, and the Owners contracted to carry, approximately 280,000 metric tons per month of bauxite, in consignments of 30,000 – 40,000 metric tons, from Conakry in Guinea to Dneprobugsky in Ukraine. On 6 April 2018, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) applied sanctions (“the sanctions”) to RTI’s parent company, adding them to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. This led to the Owners invoking a force majeure clause in the COA by sending a force majeure notice (“FM Notice”) on 10 April 2018 in which the Owners said that it would be a breach of sanctions for the Owners to continue with the performance of the COA and noted that the “sanctions will prevent dollar payments, which are required under the COA”. Charterers offered to make the payment in euros and to bear the cost of converting those euros into dollars which the tribunal described as a “completely realistic alternative” to the payment obligation in the COA, which was to pay in US dollars.

The force majeure clause provided for the suspension of the obligation of each party to perform the Charter Party while such Force Majeure Event is in operation.  The clause provided that

“36.3. A Force Majeure Event is an event or state of affairs which meets all of the following criteria:

a) It is outside the immediate control of the Party giving the Force Majeure Notice;

b) It prevents or delays the loading of the cargo at the loading port and/or the discharge of the cargo at the discharging port;

c) It is caused by one or more of acts of God, extreme weather conditions, war, lockout, strikes or other labour disturbances, explosions, fire, invasion, insurrection, blockade, embargo, riot, flood, earthquake, including all accidents to piers, shiploaders, and/or mills, factories, barges, or machinery, railway and canal stoppage by ice or frost, any rules or regulations of governments or any interference or acts or directions of governments, the restraint of princes, restrictions on monetary transfers and exchanges;

d) It cannot be overcome by reasonable endeavors from the Party affected.”

The matter went to arbitration and the Tribunal in its award held that Mur could not rely on the force majeure clause because the offer of payment in euros meant that the ‘event or state of affairs’ could have been ‘overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected’. The Tribunal found that RTI was therefore entitled to damages for MUR’s refusal to nominate vessels to load the relevant cargoes.

On an appeal under s69 of the Arbitration Act 1996 Jacobs J held that the Tribunal had erred in their finding that “reasonable endeavours” required the Owners to accept the Charterers’ proposal to make payment in a non-contractual currency. A party does not have to perform the contract otherwise than in accordance with the contract in order to avoid a force majeure event. He held that the contract required payment in US dollars and that “a party is not required, by the exercise of reasonable endeavours, to accept non-contractual performance in order to circumvent the effect of a force majeure or similar clause”, referencing the decision in Bulman v Fenwick & Co [1894] 1 QB 179. The case involved a voyage charter where the charterer could discharge the cargo of coal at one of certain named places on the Thames. The charterer nominated the Regents Canal which subsequently became subject to a strike. The charterer resisted a demurrage claim on the grounds of a strike exception. Owners claimed charterers should have ordered discharge at one of the other possible places on the Thames. It was held that the charterer was entitled to send the vessel to the Regent’s Canal, with no limitation express or implied on its choice of discharge place and that the delay fell within the strike exception clause.

The Court of Appeal has now, in a majority decision [2022] EWCA Civ 1406, reversed the decision at first instance. The Court of Appeal focussed on the word ‘overcome’ in cl 36.3.(d). Males LJ, giving the principal judgment of the majority, held that the real question was whether acceptance of RTI’s proposal to pay freight in euros and to bear the cost of converting those euros into dollars would overcome the state of affairs caused by the imposition of sanctions on Rusal. Could that state of affairs only be overcome if RTI found a way to make timely payments of freight in US dollars, in strict accordance with the terms of the contract? The answer was ‘no’.

Clause 36 should be applied in a common sense way which achieves the purpose underlying the parties’ obligations –that MUR should receive the right quantity of US dollars in its bank account at the right time. RTI were able and willing to pay in euros and to bear any additional costs or exchange rate losses in converting the euros to US dollars. Accepting their proposal would have achieved precisely the same result as performance of the contractual obligation to pay in US dollars. The word “overcome” did not necessarily mean that the contract must be performed in strict accordance with its terms, given that the arbitrators’ conclusion in their award that the force majeure could have been “overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected” was a finding of fact, or at any rate of mixed fact and law, with which the court should not interfere. The cases of Bulman v Fenwick and the Vancouver Strikes case referred to by Jacobs J were not relevant as neither case involved a force majeure provision such as cl.36 (d).

Arnold LJ dissenting found that if the parties to the contract of affreightment intended clause 36.3(d) to extend to a requirement to accept non-contractual performance, clear express words were required and there were none. He gave the example of a contract of carriage requiring discharge at port A which was strike bound. Clause 36 would not require acceptance of an offer by the other party to divert to port B which would involve no detriment to the party invoking the clause because the goods were required at a place equidistant to the two ports. The party invoking the clause is entitled to insist on contractual performance by the other.

The decision is very much tied to the wording of the particular force majeure clause in question and to the fact that the offer to pay the dollar equivalent in euros would have involved no detriment to owners. In the absence of such a clause a party would still be entitled to insist on contractual performance, as in Bulman v Fenwick.

Charters, subjects and arbitrators’ jurisdiction

Hopeless appeals sometimes clear the air. One such was today’s appeal by the claimants in the arbitration decision of The Newcastle Express [2022] EWCA Civ 1555.

Owners of a largish bulker fixed her for a voyage carrying coal from Australia to China. The charter was on the terms of an accepted proforma containing a London arbitration clause, and subject to Rightship approval. The recap, however, contained the words SUB SHIPPER/RECEIVERS APPROVAL, and no sub was ever lifted. The charterers declined to accept the vessel, alleging that Rightship approval had not been obtained on time; the owners alleged wrongful repudiation, and claimed arbitration.

The charterers argued that because the necessary approvals had not been forthcoming no agreement of any kind had been concluded, and politely sat out the owners’ proceedings. The arbitration tribunal decided that there had been a concluded contract; that it therefore had jurisdiction; and that the owners were entitled to something over $280,000 in damages. On an appeal under ss.67 and 69 of the Arbitration Act Jacobs J allowed the charterers’ s.67 appeal, holding that there had never been either a contract or an agreement to arbitrate anything; hence neither the charter nor the arbitration bound the charterers. For good measure he also said that he would have allowed a s.69 appeal on the law.

The owners unsuccessfully appealed to the Court of Appeal. They argued first, one suspects without much enthusiasm, that the “sub shipper/receivers approval” term was not a precondition of there being any contract, but instead acknowledged the presence of an agreement and merely qualified the duty to perform it. The Court of Appeal had little difficulty sweeping this point aside. Terms fairly clearly giving a person the right to disapprove a transaction on commercial grounds, as here, were fairly consistently construed in the same way as other “subject to contract” terms: and this one was clearly intended to allow either party to walk away without penalty.

This left the separability point: why not invoke the “one-stop-shop” preference adumbrated in Fiona Trust & Holding Corporation v Privalov [2007] UKHL 40, [2007] 4 All ER 951 and engage in a bit of constructive interpretation, so as to treat the parties as having agreed that even if the main agreement hadn’t been concluded they had agreed on any dispute, including whether the agreement was enforceable, being decided by arbitrators? To this, however, there was a simple answer. Harbour Assurance v Kansa Insurance Co [1993] QB 701 before the 1996 Act, and the post-1996 Fiona Trust case itself, showed that this chicken wouldn’t fight. It was all very well to separate out the arbitration agreement in cases where the parties had seemingly agreed but there was some alleged vitiating factor, such as mistake or duress, in their agreement. But here the very point at issue was whether there had been agreement on anything in the first place: if there had not, any arbitration provision fell with the agreement itself. Game set and match, therefore, to the charterers.

This must all be right. Admittedly it does leave claimants in a quandary when faced with defendants who, like the charterers in this case, deny that parties ever reached agreement and refuse to arbitrate. Do they have to go to the expense of an arbitration in the full knowledge that they may then have to traverse the same ground again in a court to prove that the arbitrator had jurisdiction to decide in their favour?

The solution suggested by Males LJ at [86], an agreement ad hoc to arbitrate the jurisdiction point, is certainly useful, though it requires agreement from the other party. A further possibility might be to amend s.32 of the Act. Currently this allows an application to the court to determine jurisdiction, but only with the agreement either of both parties or of the tribunal and the court. There is something to be said for relaxing this requirement where one party refuses to take part in the proceedings at all, and saying that in such a case either party can demand a court determination as of right. Ironically the threat to force on the other party a quick trip to the Commercial Court, with the extra costs that involves, might act as a wholesome encouragement to agree to the one-stop-shop businesspeople are always said to want and which Males LJ advocates.

The Law Commission, as it providentially happens, is currently looking at s.67 and s.32, and has a consultation paper out (in which it tentatively suggests, among other things, that a s.67 appeal should not be a rehearing except where the other party plays no part in the arbitration). This is perhaps another idea that could be discreetly fed to it. You have till 15 December, when the consultation closes, to get any proposals together.

Misdelivery by the carrier after discharge and the Article III Rule 6 time bar: the ‘Alhani gap’ is filled

FIMBank p.l.c. v KCH Shipping Co., Ltd [2022] EWHC 2400 (Comm)

The Commercial Court (Sir William Blair) has recently handed down judgment in FIMBank p.l.c. v KCH Shipping Co., Ltd, an appeal under section 69 of the Arbitration Act 1996, holding that the time bar in Article III rule 6 of the Hague-Visby Rules can apply to claims in relation to misdelivery after discharge. The Court’s decision resolves an important question which had not previously been decided by the English courts, and which has divided leading academic commentators as well as judges in other common law jurisdictions.

Background

The appeal relates to a claim brought by FIMBank p.l.c. (“FIMBank”), as the holder of bills of lading, for the alleged misdelivery of cargo by the contractual carrier, KCH Shipping Co., Ltd (“KCH”). The bills were concluded on the Congenbill form, and were subject to the Hague-Visby Rules, including the time bar in Article III r 6 of one year after delivery which applies to claims against carriers.

FIMBank served a Notice of Arbitration on KCH after that time bar expired. Its position was that its claim was nevertheless not caught by the time bar, contending that: (a) on the facts, delivery took place after discharge; and (b) as a matter of law, the time bar did not apply to claims for misdelivery occurring after discharge. In its submission, this was so given that the Hague-Visby Rules do not regulate a carrier’s obligation to deliver cargo (as opposed to the carriage of goods by sea), and only relate to a ‘period of responsibility’ which ends with the discharge of cargo. FIMBank further argued that the parties had, in any event, contractually disapplied the Rules in respect of the period after discharge, insofar as Clause 2(c) of the Congenbill form provided: “The Carrier shall in no case be responsible for loss and damage to the cargo, howsoever arising prior to loading into and after discharge from the Vessel …”.

In an Award on preliminary issues, the arbitral tribunal determined that FIMBank’s claim was time-barred irrespective of whether delivery post-dated discharge on the facts (which remained a matter in dispute). This was because: (i) the Hague[1]Visby Rules time bar can apply to claims relating to misdelivery occurring after discharge; and (ii) Clause 2(c) of the Congenbill form does not disapply the Rules in respect of the period after discharge.

The Court’s reasoning

The Court upheld the tribunal’s decision on both questions, and accordingly dismissed the appeal.

On the first question, it concluded that, on its true construction, Article III r 6 of the Hague-Visby Rules applies to claims for misdelivery of cargo after discharge. The Court noted that this conclusion avoided the need for fine distinctions as to the point at which discharge ended, and accorded with the objective of the rule which was intended to achieve finality and to enable the shipowner to clear its books. It further observed that, although certain common law authorities and commentaries might be said to support the construction of Article III r 6 for which FIMBank contended (including Carver on Charterparties and Voyage Charters), there was no international judicial or academic consensus to that effect.

The Court held that, even if its conclusion above was wrong, the tribunal’s decision was in any event justified by its finding that the bills of lading contained an implied term providing that the Hague-Visby Rules obligations and immunities are to continue after actual discharge and until delivery takes place, in line with the reasoning of the Court of Appeal in The MSC Amsterdam [2007] EWCA Civ 794.

On the second question, the Court held that, on a proper construction, Clause 2(c) did not disapply the Hague-Visby Rules to the period after discharge. Although FIMBank relied in this regard on The MSC Amsterdam, in which the express terms of the bill of lading concerned were held to have disapplied the Hague Rules after discharge, the Judge held that that decision did not warrant a different result, insofar as it featured a bill of lading with materially distinguishable terms.

Simon Rainey K.C. of Quadrant Chambers and Matthew Chan of Twenty Essex acted for KCH, instructed by Kyri Evagora and Thor Maalouf of Reed Smith LLP














One more move: Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs)

Over the last couple of years, the Law Commission for England and Wales has successfully launched several law reform projects related to digital assets, smart contracts, and electronic trade documents. With the UK’s target of becoming a tech leader, yesterday, on 16 November 2022, the Commission published a public call for evidence to be delivered by stakeholders on the characterisation and legal regulation of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) – emerging organisational entities.

A DAO, a concept first developed in 2016, is a legal structure without any central governing body that enables the members with a common target to manage the entire entity on the basis of blockchain technology, smart contracts, software systems, and the Ethereum network. As automated and decentralised bodies functioning without human intervention, DAOs serve for transparency and efficiency. Indeed, the use of DAOs is dramatically expanding in today’s financial markets, banking, and corporate governance. With this increasing significance and progressive application amidst to inevitable practical uncertainties and ambiguities, it is getting a more crucial task than ever to seriously ponder upon their operation under the existing legal systems. That is the precise target of the Government asking the Commission to investigate what exactly constitutes a DAO and what are encompassed by their structure.

The Commission has drafted the following questions encouraging everybody with relevant expertise to respond, but not necessarily to all of them:

  • “When would a DAO choose to include an incorporated entity into its structure?
  • What is the status of a DAO’s investors / token-holders?
  • What kind of liability do or should developers of open-source code have (if any)?
  • How does / should the distinction between an incorporated company (or other legal form or incorporated entity) involved in software development and an open-source smart contract-based software protocol operate as a matter of law?
  • How do DAOs structure their governance and decision-making processes?
  • How do money laundering, corporate reporting and other regulatory concepts apply to DAOs, and who is liable for taxes if the DAO makes a profit?
  • Which jurisdictions are currently attractive for DAOs and why?”

The Law Commission aims at reaching a final report which will define the relevant issues under the existing laws of England and Wales as well as determine the potential for further legal reforms.

The call for evidence will last for 10 weeks from 16 November 2022 with the closing date of 25 January 2023. Further details of the project are available at Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) | Law Commission.