Caught up in the sanctions web? Not quite: a lucky escape.

The trouble with sanctions, especially with shipping, is that they can hit innocent third parties almost as hard as sanctionees themselves. Full marks, therefore, to Foxton J in Gravelor Shipping Ltd v GTLK Asia M5 [2023] EWHC 131 (Comm) for finding a way to rescue a shipowner caught in the cross-fire when its Russian financiers were fingered by the UK, the EU and the US.

Cypriot owners Gravelor had financed a couple of their small to medium bulkers by a bareboat arrangement with Russian lenders GTLK. These finance charters required hire payments into a Hong Kong account or any subsequently nominated account; they bound Gravelor to purchase the ships at expiry, but also by Clause 19 gave it an option to buy during the charter on three months’ notice on payment of all sums owing plus a “termination amount”. In the event of default, the lenders themselves had a right under Clause 18 to cancel the charter and insist on a sale to Gravelor against payment of all sums due, with a right to sell elsewhere if Gravelor would or could not come up with the money.

Following the 2022 Ukraine debacle, GTLK was sanctioned by the US, the UK and the EU. (It made a half-hearted and decidedly fishy bid to avoid the sanctions by a supposed sale of the business, but we can ignore this here.) At that point the vessels’ insurers and P&I club backed out, and it became illegal for Gravelor to credit the Hong Kong account stipulated in the charter or in any other way to make cash available to GTLK.

To protect its rights, Gravelor immediately gave notice exercising its option to purchase; it paid no more sums in Hong Kong but offered to pay to a blocked account elsewhere. GTLK declared Gravelor in default, gave notice cancelling the charter and rejected Gravelor’s notice exercising the option. It also put in a formal demand for payment under Clause 18; it did disingenuously offer to transfer the vessels against payment to a Russian Gazprom account nominated by it, no doubt hoping that if Gravelor could not do so, this might enable it to get the vessels into its own hands.

Gravelor now sought specific performance of the purchase agreement, arguing either that GTLK had exercised its option to sell under Clause 18 and thereby given them the right to buy, or (which was more advantageous to them) that they themselves had validly exercised their option under Clause 19. Accepting that the latter claim raised triable issues, in the present proceedings they concentrated on the former and sought an immediate interim order for transfer of the vessel.

Despite what might look like serious obstacles, they were largely successful. Foxton J accepted that there was no objection to such an interim order (rightly so: see The Messiniaki Tolmi (No 2) [1982] Q.B. 1248, esp at 1265-1269), if necessary on the basis of paying the higher of the sums due under Clause 18 or 19. By cancelling the charter under Clause 18 the owners had implicitly given notice to Gravelor requiring it to buy the vessels, thus creating a contractual obligation to transfer them, and their demanding payment of sums due had had the same effect.

GTLK then fell back on payment arguments. First, they said that once they had demanded payment into the Gazprom account, this was what was required under the charter, and if for what ever reason Gravelor could not make it (which they clearly could not), then any right of theirs to a transfer of the ship disappeared. Foxton J neatly disposed of this by pointing to clause 8.10, saying that if the owner was sanctioned and payment as stipulated could not be processed as a result, the parties would negotiate another means of payment. This, he said, applied to (in effect) any impossibility of payment, whether by Gravelor or to GTLK. Furthermore, the fact that payment might have to be in Euros rather than dollars did not affect the matter (a point previously decided in the slightly similar case of MUR Shipping BV v RTI Ltd [2022] EWHC 467 (Comm).

Secondly, GTLK then argued that if the only payment open to Gravelor was to a blocked account (which in EU law was the case), this could not amount to payment triggering a right to the vessel. Despite cases like The Brimnes [1973] 1 WLR 386 holding that payment was not payment unless immediately cashable by the payee, his Lordship rejected this too: payment meant payment that would be available to a payee in normal circumstances, even if this particular one had been sanctioned.

GTLK’s last line of defence was that specific performance was inappropriate and damages more appropriate, but this too was quickly disposed of. A distinct line of authority held that if damages might be difficult to extract from a defendant, that itself might make them an inadequate remedy: the judge applied that here, pointing out that quite apart from any credit risk encashing a money judgment against a sanctioned entity would be fraught with difficulty under the sanctions legislation.

Subject to a minor matter of no real importance here, he therefore said in effect that the order should go.

The news is therefore good for Gravelor. But there is an element of luck here. Had the provisions as to payment, or possibly the options to sell or purchase, been different, there might not have been the same result in the Commercial Court. There is something to be said for some general rules about the effects of sanctions on contracts, for example dealing with the effect of payment to a blocked account on contractual rights. But that is a medium to long-term idea.

Meanwhile, both vessels, presumably still manned by Gravelor crews, seem at the time of writing to have been on the high seas in the Baltic, a comfortable distance from the nearest Russian territory (at Kaliningrad). So not only does Gravelor now have an English judgment: it might even have its ships back.

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Professor Andrew Tettenborn

Professor Andrew Tettenborn joined Swansea Law School and the Institute of International Shipping and Trade Law in 2010 having previously taught at the universities of Exeter (Bracton Professor of Law 1996-2010), Nottingham and Cambridge. Professor Tettenborn is a well-known scholar both in common law and continental jurisdictions. He has held visiting positions at Melbourne University, the University of Connecticut and at Case Law School, Cheveland, Ohio. He is author and co-author of books on torts, damages and maritime law, and of numerous articles and chapters on aspects of common law, commercial law and restitution.

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