Maritime Labour Convention and Electronic Certificates: The Way Forward?

It is often said that a period of crisis brings in the light opportunities for development, and this cannot be less true of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, this on-going pandemic, together with the control measures adopted by many countries, are highlighting the need for a shift towards digitalisation. In the context of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, in particular, the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic not only interrupted, in some instances, for a significant period of time, the conduct of inspections required in accordance with Title 5 of the Convention, but also challenged the traditional ways of carrying out such inspections. It came, thus, as no surprise that a number of countries, influenced by the benefits and the practicality of having on board electronic certificates, specifically authorised their use during this pandemic to facilitate port State control inspections, with a view to ensuring that safety standards and decent working and living conditions on board ships are maintained.[1] But, how ready was the regulatory framework for such a change?

At an international level, discussion of issues relating to electronic certificates in the context of the MLC, 2006, had started at the third meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee in April 2018, only two years before the beginning of this pandemic, without taking any decisions on this matter. During this meeting, the Vice-Chairperson of the Shipowner group, the Vice–Chairperson of the Seafarer group and the Chairperson of the Government group recognised the benefits of the use of electronic documents in relation to the Maritime Labour Certificate or the Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance, which could facilitate the maintenance and withdrawal of documents and expedite inspections by port State control officers.[2] However, one issue was whether the text of the MLC, 2006, would permit the use of such electronic certificates.[3] Furthermore, concerns were raised as to whether the various port State control authorities would accept those electronic certificates.[4] Finally, there was uncertainty as to how such electronic documents could be displayed on board ships to conform with the requirements of the Convention.[5] The possibility of using electronic certificates in relation to other documents, such as crew lists, seafarers’ employment agreements or information on crew members had also been addressed. In this respect, both the Vice-Chairperson of the Shipowner group and the Vice–Chairperson of the Seafarer group highlighted the difficulties surrounding the protection of the personal data of seafarers and noted the need to ensure compliance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.[6]

The Special Tripartite Committee returned to some of those issues during the first part of its fourth meeting in April 2021 where it was explained that the provisions of the MLC, 2006, as currently drafted, would not prevent national administrations from authorising the creation and storage of seafarers’ employment agreements in electronic format, the maintenance of electronic records on board ships and the use of such records for inspection purposes as well as the issuance of electronic Maritime Labour Certificates and Declarations of Maritime Labour Compliance.[7] However, print outs of such electronic documents should be carried on board ships and should remain available to seafarers in accordance with Standard A5.1.3 of the MLC, 2006, paragraph 12 of which explicitly states that ‘a current valid maritime labour certificate and declaration of maritime labour compliance, accompanied by an English-language translation where it is not in English, shall be carried on the ship and a copy shall be posted in a conspicuous place on board where it is available to the seafarers’.[8] It was further stressed that the use of electronic seafarers’ employment agreements should not affect the obligations under Standard A2.1 of the MLC, 2006.[9] Amongst other things, those obligations provide that seafarers working on board ships shall have a seafarers’ employment agreement signed by both the seafarer and the shipowner or a representative of the shipowner, that seafarers shall be given an opportunity to examine and seek advice on the agreement before signing, that the shipowner and the seafarer shall each have a signed original of the seafarers’ employment agreement, and that clear information as to the conditions of employment shall be easily obtained on board by seafarers and shall also be accessible for review by inspectors. The question of whether electronic signatures should be acceptable in the context of the seafarers’ employment agreement is a matter of general contract law that is left by the Convention to be determined by the national law of the flag State or any other law applicable to the seafarers’ employment agreement.[10] Finally, it was observed that the use of electronic certificates should not undermine the obligations of State parties to the MLC, 2006, or shipowners with regards to ship certification and should not make more difficult the process of issuing, accessing or using ship certificates by the individuals concerned.[11]

At a national level, Denmark was the first country to use electronic certificates for seafarers. Its pilot project of digital certificates for seafarers started in June 2016. The aim of this project was to show how digital certificates could operate on board ships, for companies and authorities.[12] The project was based on three pillars. First, seafarers would use a mobile application to sign-on, enabling data sharing; then the master would access the digital certificates of the crew, which would facilitate the management of the crew, the automatic validation of compliance with minimum safe manning requirements, and the transfer of the details to authorities prior to arriving in the next port; and, finally, port authorities would access the digital certificates of the crew, in order to verify compliance with minimum safe manning requirements.[13] Before the launch of this project, the Danish Maritime Authority sent information to the IMO explaining that the certificates would be in compliance with international conventions and instruments, including the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention) and the IMO Facilitation Committee (FAL) Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2 and Corr. 1), as they would carry an electronic coat of arms, the stamp of the Danish Maritime Authority, a signature of an authorised inspector as well as a unique tracking identification number.[14] The certificates would also be protected from alteration or tampering through encryption and use of a digital signature.[15]

Since 2016, other flag States have also started to adopt regulations in relation to the use of electronic certificates, in compliance with the IMO Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2). Such countries include Antigua and Barbuda,[16] Bahamas,[17] Belgium,[18] Cyprus,[19] India,[20] Kiribati,[21] Liberia,[22] Malta,[23] Marshall Islands,[24] Myanmar,[25] Norway,[26] Singapore,[27] Palau,[28] Panama,[29] Sri Lanka,[30] and the UK.[31] However, it may be worth mentioning that only very few countries have made explicit provisions for the issuance of MLC, 2006, documents in electronic format. For example, the Marshall Islands provided that, as from February 2020, the Maritime Administrator would issue the Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance Part I in electronic format only.[32]

This hesitation on the part of flag States must be associated with the fear of port State control authorities denying the validity of electronic certificates and the possibility of port State authorities unduly detaining or delaying vessels carrying such certificates. Clearly, the latter can be particularly onerous for seafarers, shipowners and other stakeholders. In this respect, the guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2006, which were published by the ILO in 2008, does not provide any guidance.[33] In fact, those guidelines provide that port State control inspectors should use their professional judgment in carrying out all duties.[34] Furthermore, the guidelines prescribe that the Maritime Labour Certificates and Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance should be the starting point in the inspection process as they constitute prima facie evidence that the ship is in compliance with the requirements of the MLC, 2006,[35] and that an inspection may end after a satisfactory document review.[36] Noting the importance of the Maritime Labour Certificates and Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance in the process of port State control inspections under the MLC, 2006, it can, thus, be argued that an update of this guidance is necessary to set out some uniform standards for the issue, acceptance, and use of such certificates.

Beyond the MLC, 2006, context, in June 2017, the Paris MoU issued a set of guidelines for the use of electronic certificates.[37] In particular, section 3, read in conjunction with section 2.2, explain that port State control inspectors should accept electronic certificates provided that: they are consistent with the format and content required by the relevant international convention or instrument, as applicable; they are protected from edits, modifications or revisions other than those authorised by the issuer or the administration; they contain a unique tracking number used for verification; and they contain a printable and visible symbol that confirms the source of issuance. However, those guidelines were only drafted for the purpose of providing guidance to port State control inspectors in performing a port State control inspection, and third parties could not claim any rights on that basis.[38]

More recently, the IMO adopted the procedures for port State control, 2019. What is particularly interesting, though, it is that section 1.2.3 provides that if a port State exercises control based on the MLC, 2006, guidance on the conduct of such inspections is given in the ILO publication “Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2206”. It is, thus, unclear whether these procedures should apply to such port State control inspections or not. In that respect, it is submitted that a combined reading should be preferred. In any case, this guidance adopts a positive approach towards the use of electronic certificates that aims to afford consistency in the conduct of port State control inspections. More specifically, section 2.2.3 of the IMO procedures for port State control, 2019, explains that certificates may be in hard copy or electronic format.[39] Where the ship relies upon electronic certificates, the certificates and website used to access them should conform with the IMO Facilitation Committee (FAL) Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2 and Corr. 1), specific verification instructions should be available on the ship, and viewing such certificates on a computer should be considered as meeting the requirement of carrying certificates on board.[40] Of course, this guidance is only recommendatory in nature. Governments are only encouraged to implement these procedures when exercising port State control. This implies that port States can still adopt different requirements in relation to the validity of electronic certificates. In practice, this could mean that a ship calling at various ports in the course of a single voyage would have to carry both a hard copy and an electronic version of a certificate to comply with the requirements of different port States. There is no doubt that this could disincentivise flag States and companies from investing on acquiring the necessary knowledge and technology for issuing, accessing or using electronic certificates. On a final note, it should not be overlooked that this lack of uniform standards at the international level could lead to the emergence of more ports of convenience.

As we move forward and out of this pandemic, the use of electronic certificates in the context of the MLC, 2006, is likely to be expanded or even generalised. However, for that to be a viable possibility for the future, international cooperation is necessary for the creation of uniform standards for the issuance, acceptance and use of such certificates.


[1] For example, Belgium (Circular 2020/002).

[2] Final report: Third meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006) (Geneva, 23-27 April 2018), International Labour Office, International Labour Standards Department, Geneva, ILO, 2018, at page 15.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Background paper for discussion, Fourth meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee established under Article XII of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended – Part I (Geneva, 19-23 April 2021), International Labour Office, International Labour Standards Department, Sectoral Policies Department, Geneva, ILO, 2021, at page 24.

[8] ibid at page 25.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Danish Maritime Authority, “Digital Certificates for Seafarers” available at < https://www.dma.dk/SoefarendeBemanding/SoefartsbogBeviser/DigitaleBeviser/Sider/default.aspx> accessed 28 May 2021.

[13] ibid.

[14] IMO Circular letter No 3646.

[15] ibid.

[16] Circulars 2018-003 and 2018-004.

[17] Marine Notice 53 of 4 January 2021.

[18] Circular 2019/0001.

[19] Circular No 14/2018.

[20] Engineering Circular No 07 of 2017.

[21] Marine Circular 37/2017.

[22] Information on Certificates and Documents issued by the Republic of Liberia of 14 September 2017.

[23] Merchant Shipping Notice No 139.

[24] Marine Notice MN-1-109-1 rev Nov/2020.

[25] Marine Guidance 1/2018.

[26] Norwegian Maritime Authority, “Electronic Certificates for Vessels” available at < https://www.sdir.no/en/shipping/vessels/certificates-and-documents-for-vessels/electronic-certificates-for-vessels/> accessed 28 May 2021.

[27] Shipping Circular No 26 of 2017.

[28] Marine Circular No 17-045 and Marine Notice 108.1.

[29] Merchant Marine Circular MMC-355.

[30] Merchant Shipping Notice (MSN) 01/2018 of 12 September 2018.

[31] Marine Information Note (MIN) 609 (M+F).

[32] Marine Safety Advisory No 07-20.

[33] ILO, Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009.

[34] ibid, at paragraph 39.

[35] ibid, at paragraph 42.

[36] ibid, at paragraph 45.

[37] Paris MoU, “Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates” available at < https://www.parismou.org/guidelines-use-electronic-certificates> accessed 28 May 2021.

[38] ibid.

[39] IMO Resolution A. 1138(31).

[40] IMO Resolution A. 1138(31), Annex at Section 2.2.3.

Ever Given latest.

Yesterday, 23 May, the appeals chamber of the Ismailia Economic Court upheld a ruling issued by the Ismailia Court of First Instance on May 4, rejecting the appeal made by the owners of the ship (Shoei Kisen Kaisha) against keeping the ship under arrest. In a second case that was filed by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) to keep the seizure of the ship valid, the Court recused itself and referred this case back to the Economic Court of First Instance to be considered on May 29.

The Suez Canal Authority initially demanded $916 million in compensation, which it later lowered to $600 million which would cover the salvage operation, costs of stalled canal traffic and lost transit fees for the week the Ever Given blocked the canal. It seems the claim for reputational damage totalling $300 million may have been jettisoned.

The vessel’s owners have denied that the accident was their fault and are claiming fault on the part of the SCA in allowing the vessel the ship to enter the canal amid bad weather, and claim that at least two tugs suitable for the vessel’s size should have been supplied. Owners are claiming $100,000 in initial compensation for losses related to the vessel’s seizure.

“EVER SMART” collision with “ALEXANDRA 1”: The Crossing and Narrow Channel Rules

MAIB Investigation Report: Collision Between Tanker and Containership Off  Jebel Ali – gCaptain

On 19 February 2021 the Supreme Court delivered a seminal judgment in the first appeal in a collision to come before the highest court since the mid 1970s and overturned the decisions of both Mr Justice Teare [2017] 1 Ll.R. 66 and of the Court of Appeal [2019] 1 Ll.R. 130.   

On 11 February 2015 the outbound Ever Smart, a large container ship, collided with the inbound Alexandra 1, a VLCC, within the pilot boarding area, just outside the dredged entrance/exit channel to the port of Jebel Ali. The appeal concerned two questions relating to the application of the “crossing rules” as set out in rules 15 – 17 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972. The Supreme Court emphasised that the Collision Regulations must be capable of implementation by all vessels as defined in the Rules, irrespective of their technological capabilities [72].

The Questions on the Appeal

The first question for determination was whether the crossing rules are inapplicable or are to be disapplied where an outbound vessel (Ever Smart) is navigating within a narrow channel and has a vessel (Alexandra 1) on a crossing course approaching the narrow channel with the intention of and in preparation for entering it. This question concerned the inter-relationship between the crossing rules and the “narrow channel rules” (rule 9).

The second question was whether it is necessary for the putative give-way vessel to be on a steady course for the crossing rules to be engaged. The “putative give-way vessel” is the vessel which, if the crossing rules apply, would be required by rule 15 to keep out of the way of the other vessel. In practical terms it is the vessel which has the “putative stand-on vessel” on her starboard side.

Both Teare J. and the Court of Appeal answered both questions “yes” with the consequence that the crossing rules were either not engaged at all or, if engaged, were overridden by the narrow channel rules. Teare J. apportioned liability 80% (Ever Smart) and 20% (Alexandra 1) and this was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The decision of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court disagreed.  Before addressing the two questions the Supreme Court emphasised the international character of the Collision Regulations and their application to “mariners of all nationalities, of all types (professional and amateur), in a wide range of vessels and in worldwide waters”: see [37] – [45]. In this regard the Supreme Court referred to the well-known statement of Lord Wright in The Alcoa Rambler [1949] AC 236 (PC) at p 250 that “wherever possible” the crossing rules “ought to be applied and strictly enforced because they tend to secure safe navigation”. See also Atkin LJ in The Ulrikka (1922) 13 Ll.L.Rep 367 at 368. At [46] –  [74] the Supreme Court carried out a detailed analysis of the context and purpose of the crossing rules, addressing the meaning of “heading”, “course” and “bearing” and emphasising the existence of a risk of collision when two vessels are approaching each other on a more or less steady bearing: see rule 7(d)(i).

The Supreme Court also considered the effect of rule 2(a) and (b). Rule 2(a) had been heavily relied upon by the Alexandra 1 interests for the dis-application of the crossing rule but this argument was rejected as “misconceived”: [66]. In essence the Supreme Court held that:

a.    The crossing rules were of such importance in the context of collision avoidance that “they should not lightly be treated as inapplicable” [68].

b.    Any tension between the obligation of the stand-on vessel to keep her course and speed and to comply with another rule should “be resolved by treating the stand-on obligation as moulded for the purpose of permitting compliance with the other rule” [69]. Teare J. and the Court of Appeal had erred in treating the rules as inconsistent either generally (Teare J.) or on the particular facts (the Court of Appeal).

c.    Any ouster of one rule must be limited to the minimum strictly necessary to avoid danger and uncertainty: [70].

The Second Question

The Supreme Court first addressed the second question and held that neither the give-way vessel nor the stand-on vessel had to be on a steady course for the crossing rules to be engaged: [75] – [115].   In essence the Supreme Court held that two crossing vessels may be approaching each other and remain on a steady bearing, (with consequent risk of collision) without either vessel being on a steady course.  

“ …. if two vessels, both moving over the ground, are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the engagement of the crossing rules is not dependent upon the give-way vessel being on a steady course. If it is reasonably apparent to those navigating the two vessels that they are approaching each other on a steady bearing (over time) which is other than head-on, then they are indeed both crossing, and crossing so as to involve a risk of collision, even if the give-way vessel is on an erratic course. In such a case, unless the overtaking rule applies, the crossing rules will apply.” [111]

Although it was in issue on the facts, the Supreme Court also considered that the stand-on vessel need not be on a steady course for the engagement of the crossing rules [112] – [114].

The Supreme Court concluded that, subject to the first question, the crossing rules were engaged even though “ALEXANDRA 1 was not on a steady course, or speed” [115].

The First Question

The Supreme Court identified a number of relevant factual situations where the inter-relationship between the crossing and narrow channel rules needed to be considered.  The Supreme Court sought “to determine with clarity and as precisely as possible” [124] the circumstances in which the crossing and narrow channel rules would apply in the vicinity of the entrance to a channel

Three broad groups of cases were identified [134]:

“Group 1 are vessels which are approaching the entrance of the channel, heading across it, on a route between start and finishing points unconnected with the narrow channel. They are approaching the entrance of the channel, but not intending or preparing to enter it at all. Group 2 are vessels which are intending to enter, and on their final approach to the entrance, adjusting their course to arrive at their starboard side of it. ….. Group 3 are approaching vessels which are also intending and preparing to enter, but are waiting to enter rather than entering …. ”

The crossing rules would clearly apply in a Group 1 case. The crossing rules would not apply in relation to Group 2 “because the approaching vessel is both preparing and intending to enter it, and already shaping (ie adjusting her course and speed to do so), on her final approach”. The decisions in The Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse [1907] P 36 and 259, The Canberra Star [1962] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 24 and Kulemesin v HKSAR [2013] 16 HKCFA 195 fell within Group 2.  

However the present case fell with Group 3 because Alexandra 1 had not yet shaped to enter the narrow channel on her final approach. The Supreme Court held that the crossing rules should continue to apply to a “Group 3 waiting vessel, or any vessel approaching the channel intending to enter it, which has yet to shape her course to enter it on her starboard side of it” [138].  Further there were no reason why the outbound vessel could not comply both with the crossing and narrow channels: [139] – [140]. 

At [145] the Supreme Court concluded on the first question as follows:

“Where an outbound vessel in a narrow channel is crossing with an approaching vessel so as to involve a risk of collision, the crossing rules are not overridden by the narrow channel rules merely because the approaching vessel is intending and preparing to enter the narrow channel. The crossing rules are only overridden if and when the approaching vessel is shaping to enter, adjusting her course so as to reach the entrance on her starboard side of it, on her final approach.”

Apportionment will now be re-determined by Sir Nigel Teare on the basis that the crossing rules applied from about C-23 and that the Alexandra 1 was the give-way vessel.

Simon Rainey QC and Nigel Jacobs QC represented the successful Ever Smart Interests. They were instructed by Ince Gordon Dadds LLP (Christian Dwyer, Sophie Henniker-Major and James Drummond) in consultation with Stann Law Limited (Faz Peermohamed).

Supreme Court overrules Court of Appeal on interaction of crossing and narrow channel rules in COLREGs.

 Evergreen Marine (UK) Limited (Appellant) v Nautical Challenge Ltd (Respondent)

[2021] UKSC 6

On 11 February 2015, the appellant’s large container vessel, Ever Smart, and the respondent’s VLCC (very large crude carrier), Alexandra 1, collided at sea at night just outside the entrance/exit channel to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.

Ever Smart was outbound from Jebel Ali and had been navigating along the channel at a speed over the ground of 12.4 knots at the time of the collision. Alexandra 1 was inbound to Jebel Ali but had not entered the channel as she was waiting in the pilot boarding area to pick up a pilot, and was moving over the ground very slowly, approaching the channel at a speed over the ground of 2.4 knots, but with a varying course. Visibility was good enough for the vessels to have seen each other from about 23 minutes before the collision. For the whole of that period, the two vessels were approaching each other on a steady bearing.

The High Court held Ever Smart 80% liable for the damage caused by the collision and Alexandra 1 20% liable. The Court of Appeal agreed on both issues and on apportionment. Two issues arose on appeal.

1. The interplay between the narrow channel rules and the crossing rules.

2. Whether the crossing rules only engaged if the putative give-way vessel is on a steady course.

The Supreme Court in which Lords Briggs and Hamblen gave the judgment, addressed the second issue first.

The Supreme Court held that there was no ‘steady course’ requirement. In The Alcoa Rambler the Privy Council had held that the crossing rules did not apply because the putative give-way vessel (the vessel which would be required to keep out of the way if the crossing rules applied) could not determine that she was on a steadily crossing course with the putative stand-on vessel, as that vessel was concealed behind other anchored vessels until the last moment before the collision. Importantly, there was no opportunity for the putative give-way vessel to take bearings of the putative stand-on vessel. In the present case Alexandra 1 had been approaching Ever Smart on a steady bearing for over 20 minutes before the collision, on a crossing course, enough to engage the crossing rules even though she was not on a steady course. For the same reasons the stand-on vessel need not be on a steady course to engage the crossing rules either.

On the first issue, the  interplay between the narrow channel rules and the crossing rules, at first instance and in the Court of Appeal it had been  held that the narrow channel rules displaced the crossing rules, relying on The Canberra Star [1962] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 24 and Kulemesin v HKSAR [2013] 16 HKCFA 195. However, the Supreme Court noted that these cases concerned a vessel intending to enter and on her final approach to the entrance, shaping her course to arrive at the starboard side of it. They did not apply where the approaching vessel was waiting to enter rather than entering. The crossing rules should not be overridden in the absence of express stipulation, unless there was a compelling necessity to do so.

Here, Alexandra 1 was the approaching vessel, intending and preparing to enter the channel but, crucially, waiting for her pilot rather than shaping her course for the starboard side of the channel, on her final approach. Accordingly, there was no necessity for the crossing rules to be overridden as the narrow channel had not yet dictated the navigation of the approaching vessel.

That vessel could comply with its obligations under the crossing rules, whether it was the give-way vessel or the stand-on vessel. Nor did the crossing rules need to be displaced as regards the vessel leaving the channel. The crossing rules were only displaced when the approaching vessel was shaping to enter the channel, adjusting her course so as to reach the entrance on her starboard side of it, on her final approach. Here, the crossing rules applied and Alexandra 1, as the give-way vessel, was obliged to take early and substantial action to keep well clear of Ever Smart.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal. Apportionment of liability would be redetermined by the High Court.

In Rem Action- Demise Charterer or Not?

‘Statutory liens’ or ‘statutory rights in rem’ come into existence on commencement of in rem proceedings (The Monica S [1967] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 113). In practice, this means that, if a ship is sold to a third party before the jurisdiction has been invoked or if a charter by demise is terminated before such time, then the potential claimant may be unable to benefit from the in rem proceedings and the accompanying right of ship arrest. The most recent judgment of the Admiralty Court in Aspida Travel v The Owners and/or Demise Charterers of the Vessel ‘Columbus’ and The Owners and/or Demise Charterers of the Vessel ‘Vasco Da Gama’ [2021] EWHC 310 (Admlty) highlights that.

In this case, Aspida Travel claimed against the proceeds of sale of the vessels ‘Vasco De Gama’ and ‘Columbus’ in respect of travel agency services for the transport of crew to and from the vessels which took place between 1 January 2020 to 31 July 2020 when the vessels went to lay-up due to the pandemic. At that time the vessels ‘Vasco De Gama’ and ‘Columbus’ were demise chartered to Lyric Cruise Ltd and Mythic Cruise Ltd respectively to whom Aspida provided the relevant services and rendered the resulting invoices. The claim forms were issued on 13 November and 20 November 2020. The basis of the claims was Section 21 of the Senior Courts Act 1981, paragraph 4 of which provides that:

‘In the case of any such claim as is mentioned in section 20 (2) (e) to (r), where –

  • the claim arises in connection with a ship; and
  • the person who would be liable on the claim in an action in personam (‘the relevant person’) was, when the cause of action arose, the owner or charterer of, or in possession or in control of, the ship, an action in rem may (whether or not the claim gives rise to a maritime lien on that ship) be brought in the High Court against –
    • that ship, if at the time when the action is brought the relevant person is either the beneficial owner of that ship as respects all the shares in it or the charterer of it under a charter by demise; or
    • any other ship of which, at the time when the action is brought, the relevant person is the beneficial owner as respects all the shares in it.’

The main objection to the claims was that they do not meet the requirements of Section 21 (4) of the Senior Courts Act 1981, in that Lyric Cruise Ltd and Mythic Cruise Ltd as the ‘relevant persons’ (i.e. the persons who would be liable in personam on the claims) were the charterers at the time when the cause of action arose, but not the demise charterers at the time when the action was brought. In fact, Mythic Cruise Ltd and Lyric Cruise Ltd terminated their charters on 7 October 2020 and 9 October 2020. As the claims were brought more than a month later, it was held that the third require of the Section 21 (4) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 was not fulfilled. By the time the claims were issued, Mythic Cruise Ltd and Lyric Cruise Ltd were no longer the demise charterers.

A “maritime COVID” case in the Admiralty Court. First of many?

One of the features of the pandemic has been to throw some businesses into insolvency. This recently became an issue in P&O Princess Cruises International Ltd v The Demise Charterers of the Vessel ‘Columbus’ [2021] EWHC 113 (Admlty) (26 January 2021)  as regards lay-up charges for cruise vessels at the Port of Tilbury following the collapse of the CMV cruise line.

(1) P&O Princess Cruises International Ltd v The Demise Charterers of the Vessel ‘Columbus’ [2021] EWHC 113 (Admlty) (26 January 2021) Admiralty Registrar Davison

In March 2020 the pandemic caused cruise line CMV to suspend operations. Layup at the Port of Tilbury was agreed verbally at the rate of £3,000 per vessel per week. The Port did not look with favour on extended lay-bys as these tended to interfere with the trading upon which the Port’s business model was based. Vessels on extended lay-by blocked berths that could otherwise have been in use for working vessels whose quick turnaround enabled the Port to charge for embarking and disembarking passengers and goods and for other services. On 19 June 2020, the Vessels were detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for non-payment of crew wages. A month later, the CMV empire collapsed. Some of the CMV companies went into administration on 20 July 2020. Shortly after in an exchange of emails the Port, pursuant to the “Extra Charges Schedule” found on its website and disseminated to regular port users (which included the Vessels’ former agents) by Notice to Mariners purported to switch the Vessels from the agreed lay-over rate of £3,000 per week to the “published tariff” rate which involved a dramatic increase over the previous agreed rate.

The combined effect of sections 26 and 31 of the Harbours Act 1964 summarised by Lightman J in The Winnie Rigg [1999] QB 1119 at 1125B:

“The Act of 1964 in section 26 provides that harbour authorities shall (notwithstanding any provision in earlier legislation) be free to charge such “ship, passenger and goods dues” as they think fit (subject only to the provision of a right of objection under section 31 to the Secretary of State.”

The issues were whether this power was subject to a requirement of reasonableness and the effect, if any, of the amendment from 26 June 2020 of the Insolvency Act 1986 by the Corporate Insolvency & Governance Act 2020.

(1) The relevant Port Regulation 5.6 required “reasonable prior notice” which was manifestly not complied with because the email gave less than 12 hours’ notice and the letters gave no notice at all. Less than 12 hours’ notice would not qualify as “minimum practicable”, let alone reasonable, notice. In the circumstances then prevalent a reasonable period would have been 28 days. The notice of variation was effective in accordance with that period of notice and was not required to be limited. Regulation 5.6 is not qualified by a requirement that charges may only be varied by an amount which is reasonable. The wording of 5.6 was clearly intended to give the Port complete freedom to increase the charges as it saw fit, on reasonable notice.

Although the email and the letters referred to the “published tariff”, had they used words such as “charges per Extra Charges Schedule” or similar the result would be no different. In that scenario, no one on the Vessels’ side could have thought that the part of the Schedule referring to “negotiated” rates for “extended lay-by” was the applicable part – because the negotiated rate had just been withdrawn. Equally, this was not a case of a failure to leave a berth at the required time “on completion of cargo operations”. That left only the rate for a vessel “detained at the port”. The Vessels had indeed been detained at the Port

If and to the extent that it was necessary for the Port to rely upon the Regulations’ statutory origin for their binding effect, then Section 22 of the 1968 Act would not prevent that as it makes the binding effect of the 2005 Regulations subject to a requirement that “a relevant extract from subsisting regulations” was “included in each schedule of charges published by the Port Authority”. In 1968 that would, no doubt, have taken the form of the Regulations (or at least Regulation 5) being cited alongside the Extra Charges Schedule or perhaps included in the same booklet or fixed to the same notice board. The Extra Charges Schedule stated in the top line, immediately below the title, that it was to be read in accordance with the Port of Tilbury’s General Terms and Conditions – 2005 Edition. That was, and was acknowledged to be, a reference to the 2005 Regulations which were on the same website. That plainly satisfied the requirements of Section 22, the statutory intention of which was to bring the 2005 Regulations to the attention of the Port’s users and to make them readily accessible.

(2) The position was not affected by the new Section 233B (3) inserted into the Insolvency Act 1986 which provides that

(3) A provision of a contract for the supply of goods or services to the company ceases to have effect when the company becomes subject to the relevant insolvency procedure if and to the extent that, under the provision—

(a) the contract or the supply would terminate, or any other thing would take place, because the company becomes subject to the relevant insolvency procedure, or (b) the supplier would be entitled to terminate the contract or the supply, or to do any other thing, because the company becomes subject to the relevant insolvency procedure.”

Although section 233B of the Insolvency Act 1986 was capable of qualifying the right of a supplier of services to terminate or “do any other thing” in respect of a company which had entered administration, that was not relevant here because the counterparties to the contracts were two CMV companies Mythic and Lyric, neither of which were in administration.

Admiralty Registrar Davison concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that the Port was entitled to its lay-up charges, stating.

58.       By implementing an increase from the agreed rate to the “tariff” rate, the Port, which already had a privileged position under statute, has considerably advanced that privileged position at the expense of other creditors. That observation is tempered by the fact that the Port was willing to reduce its rate to £10,000 per week (which, had it been necessary, I would have designated a “reasonable rate”) provided that the arrears were brought up to date. It was not the Port’s fault that that did not happen. Nevertheless, the overall recovery of the Port remains disproportionate to the services provided, the size of the available funds from the sales of the Vessels and the other claims against those funds.

59.       The Admiralty Court has no residual jurisdiction to moderate a claim so characterised. This claim, as with any claim, has to be assessed in accordance with the Port’s legal rights. I have found those rights to be clear.

COVID 19. Lengthy delays for discharge of coal cargoes in two Chinese ports.

COVID 19 has caused numerous delays in loading and discharging at ports throughout the world. Sometimes we have seen total exclusion of ships from specified countries, as with the UK’s exclusion of all ships from Denmark for a time in November due to the ‘covid-mink’ scare, and with the brief exclusion by France of accompanied road freight from the UK shortly before Christmas.  

News has now come in of very serious delays in certain Chinese ports. Two Indian ships carrying coal from Australia are still waiting at anchorage for a very long time. The ‘Anastasia’ with 23 crew members on board arrived off Jingtang in Hebei Province on 13 June and the ‘Jag Anand’ with 16 crew members arrived off Caofeidian port on September 20. On New Year’s day India said it was looking at several options to repatriate the 39 Indian sailors on the two ships, including a crew change at sea or at a Chinese port. 

Can Independent Contractors be sued under the Athens Regime?

Sperling v. Queen of Nanaimo [2020] BCSC 1852 (CanLII)

Athens Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage at Sea 1974 has been implemented into Canadian Law by the Marine Liability Act 2001. By virtue of Article 3.3 of the Athens Convention, a carrier is liable for the negligence of its “servants and agents”.

The plaintiff claims damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained when the Queen of Nanaimo, a ferry on which she was a passenger, hit the dock at Mayne Island BC on 3 August 2010. It is the contention of the plaintiff that she was thrown from a chair abroad the ferry and struck her head on a pole.  In addition to the owner and operator of the ferry, the present applicants, Ulstein Maritime Ltd and Rolls Royce Ltd, are named as the defendants in this action. They are alleged to have been involved in “the design, construction, installation, maintenance, service, inspection, refit and/or repairs of the operating systems, equipment and/or machinery of the ferry, including but not limited to those relating to its propulsion, breaking and or steering systems.”

The applicants (Ulstein) seek a declaration under r 9-4 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules that any liability they may have to the plaintiff is subject to a monetary limit of about CA$ 325,000 (the limit set by the Athens Convention 1974). Article 11 of the Athens Convention 1974 extends the benefit of the monetary limit to servants or agents of a carrier acting within the scope of their employment.

 Rule 9-4 of the Supreme Court Civil Rules stipulate:

…(2) If, in the opinion of the court, the decision on the point of law substantially disposes of the whole action or of any distinct claim, ground of defence, set-off or counterclaim, the court may dismiss the action or make any order it considers will further the object of these [Rules]…

If the application of Ulstein is successful, their liability and the extent of their liability would be determined under the Athens Convention 1974. This is an outcome that plaintiff wishes to avoid at any cost as bringing a personal injury claim with no limit to liability outside the Athens Convention regime against Ulstein would obviously yield serious advantages for the plaintiff in terms of litigation strategy.  

The key question, therefore, is whether Ulstein can be regarded as the “servant or agent” of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention 1974. These terms have not been defined in the Convention and it is natural that when determining the meaning of these terms each contracting state will be tempted to defer to its legal system. This is precise what the applicants suggest that the Court should refrain from. It is the contention of the applicants that common law definitions of, and distinctions between servants/employees, agents and independent contractors should not apply to the interpretation of international agreements given that such agreements are meant to apply in multiple jurisdictions under many legal systems (a similar point was made in J.D. Irving Ltd v. Siemens Canada Ltd 2016 FC 69 at [260]).

The author has sympathy to this approach (as it promotes uniformity of the Athens regime) even though he is well aware of several cases where courts in contracting states have applied their national law in answering questions not addressed in the relevant international convention.

To advance their argument further the applicants argue that there is a distinction between contractors who repair or maintain a vessel, including installing necessary equipment, and those who manufacture or modify a vessel or its components. It is the contention of the applicants that the former are agents of the carrier while the latter are not. Applying this logic, the applicants suggest that they should be treated as the agent of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention as their contract with the operators required them to maintain, service, inspect the vessel in addition to repair, design and install necessary parts.

The plaintiff, on the other hand, does not agree the extended definition of agency applies, and insists that common law definitions remain relevant.

The Honourable Mr Justice N Smith dismissed the application of the applicants under Rule 9-4 indicating that the ruling sought by the applicants would likely not be decisive or shorten the trial and it is a point of law that cannot be resolved without hearing evidence. He indicated that it would be for the judge to decide the nature of the relationship between the applicants and the operators, what work the applicants were engaged to perform.

It is fair to say that the issue of whether an independent contractor who is engaged in maintenance of the vessel can be regarded as an agent or employee of the carrier for the purposes of the Athens Convention is still an open one. It is submitted that at trial the court should attempt to maintain the objective behind extending the application of the Athens regime to the agents and employees of the carrier. In a technical sense, the applicants here do not seem to be an agent or employee of the carrier (under common law). However, if they are actively involved in maintaining the vessel’s systems as an independent contractor should their position be any different than an employee onboard responsible for maintaining the vessel? Put differently, if their activities have a significant impact on the passenger’s safety onboard the vessel, is it in the spirit of the Convention to leave them outside the Athens regime? It is expected that the judge will be able to shed light on the position of independent contractors who have an ongoing responsibility to maintain the vessel from the perspective of the Athens regime. Ultimately, the finding will be binding from the perspective of Canadian law. However, it will certainly be an analysis that will be put forward for consideration when the same issue arises in another jurisdiction that has implemented the Athens regime into its legal system.                             

Admiralty registrar refuses to unpick contractual incidents of bunker suppliers’ in rem claims.

In TRANS-TEC INTERNATIONAL SRL AND ANOTHER V OWNERS AND/OR DEMISE CHARTERERS OF THE VESSEL “COLUMBUS” [2020] EWHC 3443 (Admlty), Admiralty Registrar Mr Davison, on 17 December 2020, considered the meaning of “claim in respect of goods or materials supplied to a ship for her operation or maintenance” under the Senior Courts Act 1981, section 20(2)(m)

Various bunker suppliers claimed in rem against two vessels and also claimed additional sums sought for contractual interest, administrative fees and costs indemnity. The vessels had been sold and the actions were against the sale proceeds with a claim for default judgments. Other in rem claimants disputed the additional sums claimed and argued that these could only be brought in personam.

The additional sums were held to be recoverable under s.20 (m). The fees and interest were incidents of the contract and although the collection costs were further removed they too formed part of the contractual bargain.

Hi Ho ‘Silver’. Salvage and Sovereign Immunity.

 

As 2020 draws to a close, we have the first case on the application of the 1978 Sovereign Immunity Act to a claim for salvage, in Argentum Exploration Ltd v The Silver [2020] EWHC 3434 (Admlty) (16 December 2020), heard by Sir Nigel Teare acting as a judge of the High Court.

A UK company formed in 2012 for the purpose of locating and salving valuable shipwrecks lying at depths which up until then had precluded salvage claimed to have salved in 2017 silver bars worth US$43m from the wreck of the SS Tilawa which Japanese torpedoes sunk in the Indian Ocean on 23 November 1942. The bars are the property of the South African government which was intending to use them in 1942 for minting South African coinage and some Egyptian coinage.

South Africa asserted sovereign immunity and claimed the Receiver of Wreck should deliver the cargo to it without any salvage being paid. Section 1 of the State Immunity Act 1978 (“the SIA”) provides that “a State is immune from the jurisdiction of the courts of the United Kingdom except as provided in the following provisions of this Part of this Act.” This is subject to various exceptions, in particular that in s.10(4) .

A State is not immune as respects—

(a) an action in rem against a cargo belonging to that State if both the cargo and the ship carrying it were, at the time when the cause of action arose, in use or intended for use for commercial purposes; “

The key question was whether the bars of silver and the vessel carrying them were, at the time the cause of action arose, in use or intended for use for commercial purposes.

South Africa argued that cargo was not in use during the voyage, but this did not determine the question of state immunity because it remained to consider whether the cargo was intended for use for commercial purposes. Sir Nigel Teare had difficulty in accepting that there is a principled reason for state immunity from the court’s adjudicative jurisdiction in an action in rem claiming salvage where the state has chosen to have its cargo carried by sea pursuant to a contract of carriage just like any private owner of cargo and has therefore exposed itself to claims for salvage like any private owner of cargo. The cargo of silver was intended to be used for commercial purposes, because it had been bought from the Bombay Mint and shipped commercially, and its intended us as part of a sovereign activity of producing South African cargo did not affect its status as commercial cargo.

The character or status of the cargo in 1942 was relevant to the character or status of the cargo in 2017, and there was no reason to conclude that the character or status of the cargo in 1942 as a cargo used for the commercial purposes of a contract of carriage had changed by then. For the character or status of the cargo in 1942 to have changed by 2017 there must have been some decision by the South Africa to change it. There was none on the facts of this case.

Accordingly, Sir Nigel Teare found that the matter fell within the ‘commercial purposes’ exception in the SIA. This conclusion was consistent with the obiter approach of Gross J., in the Altair that the cargo in that case was a commercial cargo (in use for commercial purposes) because it had been bought and shipped commercially, notwithstanding that it was to be used as part of the Public Distribution System.

It was therefore unnecessary to consider whether, if, contrary to this conclusion, the cargo was not in use for commercial purposes it was intended to be used for commercial purposes. On the facts it was intended to be used substantially for the government or sovereign purpose of producing South African Union coinage which was a sovereign or governmental activity.