The Court of Appeal declined yesterday to upset the ship arrest apple-cart. In The Alkyon  EWCA Civ 2760 it upheld the decision of the Admiralty Judge, Teare J, noted here on this blog, that a bank could hold an arrest over a mortgaged ship without having to give any undertaking to pay damages for loss of use should it turn out that its claim was ill-founded. The owners of the MV Alkyon, a 36,000 dwt bulker, had argued that there was no default justifying her arrest in Newcastle; that they could not afford to bail her; that her immobilisation by arrest would cause them big losses; and that it was only fair that if the bank was indeed wrong, it should carry the can for those losses.
Despite the fact that there is theoretically no restriction on the court’s discretion to release an arrested vessel (see CPR 61.8(4)(b)), Teare J disagreed; and the Court of Appeal agreed with him. Although there was much in common between ship arrest and freezing orders, where an undertaking in damages was emphatically the rule, for the court to demand such an undertaking in arrest cases would cut across the idea that arrest was available as of right, and also the established principle that liability for wrongful arrest could not be imposed unless the claimant proved bad faith or possibly gross negligence. This was not something for the judiciary — barring possibly the Supreme Court — to do.
In the view of this blog, the Court of Appeal was quite right not to draw the analogy with freezing orders. For one thing not all arresters are plutocratic banks: think crewmen seeking wages or damages for injury on board, or for that matter suppliers of canned food and water for those crewmen to eat and drink. For another, the right to arrest is there for a purpose, namely to assure people that they will be paid by the owners of peripatetic pieces of maritime machinery: to allow a threat to arrest to be met with a threat to claim damages would not further this end. For a third, damages for arrest may well bear no proportion to the amount of the claim: the losses caused by the arrest of a large bulker or reefer would be likely to dwarf a straightforward $100,000 bunkers debt. And lastly, it’s all very well saying a single arrester ought to carry the can for immobilisation losses: but what if cautions against release then pile on? Which of the undeserving claimants should have to pay how much? Nice work for lawyers, maybe: less good news for shipping claimants who want to get on with their commercial lives.