Off-Hire Clauses- Burden of Proof, Impact of Covid-19 and Legal Construction

London Arbitration 6/22

The vessel was chartered on trip basis on an amended NYPE form from India to China. The vessel was delivered to charterers’ service on 29 June 2020 and arrived at the first loading port at 04.30 on 30 June. The vessel then commenced drifting until 19.22 on 30 June in order to complete the cleaning of the holds. In fact, it was a requirement under the charterparty that the vessel’s holds to be washed down by fresh water, dried and ready in all respects to receive the charterers’ intended cargo of iron ore pallets/fines/lumps to an independent surveyor’s satisfaction. The charterparty also allowed owners 24 hours for cleaning the holds. The owners acknowledged that the 24 hours permitted expired at 13.44 on 30 June and they had, therefore, exceeded the allowance permitted by 5 hours and 38 minutes by completing cleaning at 19.22 on 30 June. They have, on that premise, accepted that the vessel was off hire during this period. However, charterers argued that hold cleaning was not completed at the end of the drifting period (by 19.22 on 30 June) and submitted that extensive manoeuvring by the vessel after the end of the drifting period has been an attempt by the owners to delay the time of arrival at the first load port with clean holds to ensure that the vessel would not be seen to have used time which would otherwise have fallen outside the agreed cleaning period. In fact, it was alleged by the charterers that hold cleaning continued between the end of the drifting period and was ultimately completed at the arrival of the vessel at the first load port. On that basis, it was the contention of the charterers that the vessel was off hire until 03.36 on 1 July (the time which the notice of readiness was tendered). To substantiate their point, the charterers relied on a message sent to them by owners on 26 June setting out their plan to clean holds taking into account the short ballast leg between previous discharge port and next port of loading.

The arbitration tribunal held that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations made by the charterers that cleaning of holds continued after 19.22 on 30 June or that the voyage from the end of the drifting period to arrival at the first load port was prolonged by any further cleaning undertaken by the vessel. Therefore, the vessel was off hire until 19.22 on 30 June. Without being aware of all the evidence presented to the tribunal, it is hard to criticise the finding of the tribunal on this point but as a general principle of law the burden of proving something was not the case falls upon the party arguing it and clearly charterers failed to prove their point. There was nothing in the message on 26 June relied on by the charterers to suggest that owners did in fact not complete cleaning of holds at the time they said they did. In the message, the owners simply indicated that completing cleaning might be problematic in the time frame, but they set out a schedule to achieve the required cleaning.

It was also argued by charterers that the vessel was off hire from 14.40 on 26 July until 15.30 on 28 July while awaiting a quarantine officer’s permission to discharge in China. The delay was caused as one of the crew members had a slight fever (37.4 Celsius) and it was as a result requested by the quarantine officer that a nucleic acid test is conducted.

The relevant provisions of the charter party were:

Clause 15   

In the event of loss of time from deficiency of men or stores, fire, breakdown or damages to hull, machinery or equipment, grounding, detention by average accidents to ship or cargo, drydocking for the purpose of examination or painting of bottom, or by any other cause preventing the full working of the vessel, the payment of hire shall cease for the time thereby lost.                         

Clause 45

Officers and crew to comply with vaccination and sanitary regulations in all ports of call and corresponding certificates to be available on board, enabling the vessel to obtain free pratique by radio.

 The crux of the charterers’ argument was that illness of crew member constituted a deficiency of men within cl 15 or alternatively the events fells within the definition of “any other cause” in cl 15. It was also contended that the owners were in breach of cl 45.

The tribunal was of the view that a body temperature of 37.4 Celsius was within the normal range of temperatures for human body and there was no reasonable ground to assume that the crew member was ill. Therefore, there was no good reason for the actions of the quarantine officer which were clearly excessive and arbitrary. On that basis, the delay was not an off hiring event within cl. 15- there was simply no “deficiency” of crew or the full working of vessel was not affected adversely as a result of a similar incident. It was also held that cl 45 was not relevant as there was no evidence that the owners and/or master failed to comply with the vaccination and sanitary regulations at the discharge port or there was evidence of any absence of certificates required be on board.

The events at the discharge port took place when China was implementing very strict measures to deal with the outbreak of the pandemic. That said, terms of a commercial agreement still need to be construed in line with the established principles of law and construction. The finding of the tribunal emphasises once again the fact that off hire clauses (just like any exception clause) will be construed narrowly (as illustrated recently in The Global Santosh [2014] EWCA Civ 403 by the Court of Appeal).

It is also clear from the finding of the tribunal that burden to prove that the off hiring event took place is on the charterers and mere speculation will not be adequate to convince the arbitral panel or judge that the event might have occurred in a particular way.            

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