“Free pratique” is essentially the licence given to a vessel by authorities to enter a port on the assurance that she is free from contagious diseases. In normal times, obtaining this certificate is regarded as a mere formality and this led some judges to comment in some cases, like Longmore, LJ did in The Eagle Valencia  EWCA 713, that lack of this certificate will not prevent a valid notice of readiness (NOR) essential for the commencement of laytime. However, it should not be disregarded that the decision in this case was the result of judicial construction of various contradictory terms incorporated into the relevant charterparty. So, it will be ambitious to suggest that this case establishes a principle to the effect that obtaining free pratique is not essential for a vessel to be ready in legal sense!
In fact, the “free pratique” forms an important part of the ship’s papers and has the potential to cause problems for owners in today’s climate especially if the charterparty in question does not expressly state otherwise. It has been doubted in a number of old authorities (e.g. The Delian Spirit  Lloyd’s Rep 64) whether incorporation of a “WIFPON” clause (Whether in free pratique or not) removes the need for obtaining a “free patique” certificate so a vessel which is physically ready becomes an “arrived ship” in legal sense of the word. To say that WIFPON clause does not have this effect clearly contradicts plain meaning of such a clause. And, it is hoped that this point receives some judicial attention soon.
However, in the absence of a specialized clauses (e.g. BIMCO’s Infectious or Contagious Diseases Clause for Voyage Charterparties) and in today’s world hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is very likely that not being able to obtain free pratique will have grave consequences for the owners and time lost in a loading or discharging port as a result will be on their account. Reports are suggesting that in many ports around the world, vessels are asked to remain in quarantine for 14 days before authorities grant the free pratique certificate. For example, recently Argentinian Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Health have instructed the maritime authorities in the country to compel specific vessels- under certain circumstances- to remain in quarantine for 14 days.
When entering into charterparties, shipowners need to be aware of the so-called “new normal” and it is advisable to insist on incorporating specialized clauses to deal with such problems. BIMCO’s Infectious or Contagious Diseases Clause, mentioned above, or INTERKANKO’s Covid-19 Clause, (discussed in an earlier blog) offers protection to owners as under such clauses any time lost in a port of loading or discharge due to reasons associated with Covid-19 pandemic will count as laytime (or demurrage).