Intransigent defendants: Prestige 4.0

Most parties who lose English court cases or arbitrations give in (relatively) gracefully. In the long and ongoing Prestige saga, however (already well documented in this blog: see here, here, here, and here), the French and Spanish governments have chosen to fight tooth and nail, something that is always apt to give rise to interesting legal points. Last Friday’s episode before Butcher J (SS Mutual v Spain [2020] EWHC 1920 (Comm)) was no exception, though in the event nothing particularly novel in the way of law emerged.

To recap, nearly twenty years ago the laden tanker Prestige sank off northern Spain, grievously polluting the French and Spanish coasts. Steamship Mutual, the vessel’s P&I Club, accepted that it might be potentially liable to direct suit up to the CLC limit, but pointed out that its cover was governed by English law, contained a “pay to be paid” clause and required arbitration in London. Nothing daunted, the French and Spanish governments came in as parties civiles when the owners and master were prosecuted in Spain, and claimed their full losses. The Club meanwhile protected its position by obtaining declaratory arbitration awards in England against both governments that all claims against it had to be arbitrated here; for good measure it then successfully transmuted these awards into High Court judgments under s.66 of the 1996 Arbitration Act (see The Prestige (No 2) [2013] EWHC 3188 (Comm). These decisions the French and Spanish governments blithely ignored, however; instead they took proceedings in Spain to execute the judgments they had obtained there.

In the present litigation, the Club’s claim (slightly simplified) was against both governments for damages for continuing the Spanish proceedings, based either on breach of the arbitration agreement, or in the alternative on failure to act in accordance with the s.66 judgments. The object, unsurprisingly, was to establish an equal and opposite liability to meet any claim asserted by the governments under their judgments in the Spanish proceedings.

The Club sought service out on the French and Spanish governments: the latter resisted, arguing that they were entitled to state immunity, and that in any case the court had no jurisdiction.

On the state immunity point, the Club succeeded in defeating the governments’ arguments. The proceedings for breach of the arbitration agreement were covered by the exception in s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978 as actions “related to” an arbitration agreement binding on the governments. Importantly, Butcher J regarded it as unimportant that the proceedings did not relate to the substantive matter agreed to be arbitrated, and that the governments might be bound not by direct agreement but only in equity on the basis that they were third parties asserting rights arising from a contract containing an arbitration clause.

The proceedings on the judgments, by contrast, were not “related to” the arbitration agreement under s.9: understandably so, since they were based on failure to give effect to a judgment, the connection to arbitration being merely a background issue. But no matter: they were covered by another exception, that in s.3(1)(a), on the basis that the breach alleged – suing in the teeth of an English judgment that they had no right to do so – was undoubtedly a “commercial transaction” as defined by that section.

The judge declined to decide on a further argument now moot: namely, whether suing abroad in breach of an English arbitration agreement was a breach of a contractual obligation to be performed in England within the exception contained in s.3(1)(b) of the 1978 Act. But the betting, in the view of this blog, must be that that exception would have been inapplicable: there is a big and entirely logical difference between a duty not to do something other than in England, and an obligation actually to do (or omit to do) something in England, which is what s.3(1)(b) requires.

State immunity disposed of, did the court have jurisdiction over these two governments? Here the holding was yes, but only partly. The claim based on the s.66 judgments was, it was held, subject not only to the Brussels I Recast Regulation but to its very restrictive insurance provisions dealing with claims against injured parties (even, note, where the claims were being brought, as some were in the case of Spain, under rights of subrogation). Since the governments of France and Spain were ex hypothesi not domiciled in England, but in their respective realms, there could be no jurisdiction against them.

On the other hand, the claims based on the obligations stemming from the arbitration award were, it was held, within the arbitration exception to Brussels I, and thus outside it and subject to the national rules in CPR, PD6B. The only serious question, given that the arbitration gateway under PD6B 3.1(10) or the “contract governed by English law” gateway under PD6B 3.1(6)(c) pretty clearly applied, was whether there was a serious issue to be tried as to liability in damages. Here Butcher J had no doubt that there was, even if the governments were not directly party to the agreements and the awards had been technically merely declaratory of the Club’s rights. It followed that service out should be allowed in respect of the award claims.

Further than this his Lordship did not go, for the very good reason that he had no need to. But in our view the better position is that indeed there would in principle be liability under the award claims. If, as is now clear, an injunction is available on equitable grounds to prevent suit in the teeth of an arbitration clause by a third party despite the lack of any direct agreement by the latter, there seems no reason why there should not also be an ability to an award of damages, if only under Lord Cairns’s Act (now the Senior Courts Act 1981, s.50). Further, there seems no reason why there should not be a an implied obligation not to ignore even a declaratory award by suing in circumstances where it has declared suit barred.

For final answers to these questions we shall have to await another decision. Such a decision might even indeed come in the present proceedings, if the intransigence of the French and Spanish governments continues.

One other point to note. The UK may be finally extricating itself from the toils of the EU at the end of this year. But that won’t mark the end of this saga. Nor indeed will it mark the end of the Brussels regime on jurisdiction, since the smart money is on Brussels I being replaced with the Lugano Convention, which is in fairly similar terms. You can’t throw away your EU law notes quite yet.

Careful who you sell that ship to!

Safety in ship recycling has been a priority of the EU for more than seven years. Under EU Regulation 1257/2013, in force since 2018, there is a complex system of EU approval of ship recycling facilities, it being illegal to send an EU-registered ship for recycling to an unapproved facility (meaning as often as not a not-very-deserted beach in India or Bangladesh, where she is broken up essentially by hand). This Regulation is to be retained EU law post-Brexit, though from the end of this year it will be significantly narrowed, in that it will only apply to UK-registered vessels (i.e. pretty few).

But quite a lot of ship recycling is outside the regulation. A case in point was the Maran Centaurus, a vessel previously in the news as the victim of a high-profile Somali hijacking in 2009 that led to payment of a then-record ransom of about $7 million. Owned by Greek interests, at the end of her life she was reflagged to Palau and sold to a buyer for demolition, who in turn resold her to a beachside Bangladeshi concern. During demolition a worker operating in very dangerous conditions was killed. His widow rightly concluded that the demolishers were not worth powder and shot. She instead sued the owner’s managing agents, a UK company who acting under the owners’ instructions had arranged the sale, alleging that it should have been foreseeable that unless they took steps to ensure that the vessel ended up in the hands of responsible breakers she would be broken up — as she was — without any serious regard for worker safety. The agents denied fault and applied for a strikeout, on the basis that a seller of a ship owed no duty in respect of dangerous practices that might later occur in relation to her. This was not, they said, a case of damage caused by hazardous materials aboard the vessel injuring a worker: there was nothing more here than a sale indirectly to a person likely to have a less than satisfactory attitude to industrial safety.

This writer has quite a lot of sympathy for this view. But in Begum v Maran (UK) Ltd [2020] EWHC 1846 (QB) Jay J declined a strikeout, regarding it as highly arguable that, despite the vessel herself not being unusually hazardous, this was a case where the defendants had created a foreseeable risk of harm and as such potentially owed a duty of care to the worker concerned.

Note that this is not a holding that there was a duty of care: merely that the argument that there was one wasn’t a non-starter. Nevertheless, it should worry shipowners everywhere (and cause them to check on their insurance coverage). It might even extend further: for example, what of a shipowner who sells (or bareboat charters) a vessel to an operator known to have a dodgy safety record: the logic of the Maran case seems to apply here too, and if it is followed we cannot rule out liability in the seller or owner.

Admittedly the if might be a biggish one. We said that we had sympathy for the defendant’s argument. The chances are that this case will now settle so we won’t ever get a final answer here. But the defendants’ case is strong. The case for making owners responsible for policing the safety records of disponees is by no means obvious, any mote than it is obvious that in selling my car I should have to take care lest the buyer is a known drink driver. It may well be worth fighting this issue again if, as seems highly likely, it comes back to the English courts in another case.

Are your bunkers ‘necessaries’? Not if you are carrying them as cargo says US Fifth Circuit.

The Commercial Instruments and Maritime Liens Act (“CIMLA”), 46 U.S.C. §§ 31301–31343, provides that a person may obtain a maritime lien against a vessel by providing it with “necessaries.” In Martin Energy L.L.C v Bourbon Petrel MV, yet another case involving the OWB collapse, the Fifth Circuit has considered the issue of  “necessaries” in a claim by the physical bunker supplier against support vessels that took on bunkers as cargo, for refuelling seismic survey vessels off the Louisiana coast.

The District Court had found that the supplier had a maritime lien over the supply vessels. The court reasoned that two of the support vessels, served as “floating gas stations” for the seismic Vessels and that the fuel was “necessary” for the support Vessels to perform this function. Similarly, the court reasoned the fuel was “necessary” for the third support Vessel, to function as an “offshore supply vessel,” transporting fuel, equipment, and personnel to the Seismic Vessels.

The Fifth Circuit has reversed that finding. Fuel may be “necessary” to a vessel if it fuels the vessel. But the fuel transported by the support vessels was for refuelling other vessels and was not “necessary” to the support vessels.

Of weekend sailors, docks and marinas.

Decisions that amuse law professors often end up as footnotes in law books because they’re not very significant in the great run of things. One suspects this is true of Teare J’s erudite judgment about marinas today in Holyhead Marina Ltd v Farrer [2020] EWHC 1750 (Admlty), but it’s still worth a short note.

Holyhead marina, like most marinas, is a floating labyrinth of wooden pontoons and walkways designed to cram in as many weekend sailors’ prides and joys as it can. A couple of years ago it was hit by Storm Emma and boats moored there suffered over £5 m worth of damage. The hull insurers sued, whereupon the marina raised the issue of limitation, claiming that under s.191 of the MSA 1995 it could limit liability to a fairly piddling sum based on the limitation figure applicable to the largest vessel (yacht) that had visited it in the previous five years.

This gave rise to the first issue: the right to limit was limited to “docks”. Was a marina, an erection that floated on water rather than solid land that abutted it, a “dock” — a term that included “wet docks and basins, tidal docks and basins, locks, cuts, entrances, dry docks, graving docks, gridirons, slips, quays, wharves, piers, stages, landing places and jetties”? Teare J had no doubt that it was, despite its relative insubstantiality and lack of any connection with commercial shipping. We suggest that this must be right. True, a mere buoy or dolphin shouldn’t be a dock, but beyond that essentially anywhere where vessels can tie up and people can board and disembark should be included. It is useful to have confirmation that s.191 will be generously construed, and technical pettifogging about the definition of a dock discouraged. Insurers now know where they stand.

A few minor points. First, the hull insurers argued that Holyhead was guilty of conduct breaking limitation. Although Teare J refused to strike out this plea as hopeless, he was clearly very sceptical of it, again one suspects with reason. Secondly, the hull insurers advanced a hopeful argument that because the marina was in vhf contact with users all over Holyhead Port, its limit fell to be reckoned by that applicable to the large Irish Sea ferry that visited the port. This received short shrift: what mattered was the area of which the marina was in effective physical or legal control.

Thirdly, an interesting question: why didn’t the marina have a clause limiting its liability to the yacht owners who used it under contract? Or did it, but was it sceptical of the ability of such a clause to withstand scrutiny under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (yachtsmen being consumers)? It’s likely we’ll never know. But marinas up and down the kingdom, together with their liability insurers, might do well to look through their standard contract terms, if they wish to avoid having to argue the toss in future about an obscure provision in the Merchant Shipping Act.

BIMCO COVID-19 Crew Change Clause – An Attempt to Facilitate Crew Changes

On 25 June, BIMCO announced the publication of their novel COVID-19 Crew Change Clause for Time Charter Parties. The clause provides shipowners with the right to deviate for crew changes ‘if COVID-19 related restrictions prevent crew changes from being conducted at the ports or places to which the vessel has been ordered or within the scheduled period of call’. Shipowners can exercise their right to deviate by giving charterers a written notice as soon as reasonably possible. The crew change costs will rest on shipowners, unless shipowners and charterers agree that the vessel will remain on hire during the deviation period, but at a reduced rate. In such case, the cost of bunkers consumed will be shared equally between shipowners and charterers.

With more than 200,000 seafarers currently working on board after the expiry of their contracts of employment, the COVID-19 Crew Change Clause at least ensures that shipowners can sail to those few ports were crew changes are possible, without facing the risk of breaching their contractual obligations under time charters. It should be noted, however, that this is not a panacea to the issue of crew changes. Recognising seafarers as ‘keyworkers’ and designating ports where crew changes can take place safely following the Protocols designed by the IMO (Circular Letter No 4204/Add 14 (5 May 2020) should remain a priority. 

Prestige 3.0 — the saga continues

The Spanish government and SS Mutual are clearly digging in for the long haul over the Prestige pollution debacle eighteen years ago. To recap, the vessel at the time of the casualty was entered with the club under a contract containing a pay to be paid provision and a London arbitration clause. Spain prosecuted the master and owners and, ignoring the arbitration provision, came in as partie civile and recovered a cool $1 bn directly from the club in the Spanish courts. The club meanwhile obtained an arbitration award in London saying that the claim against it had to be arbitrated not litigated, which it enforced under s.66 of the AA 1996 and then used in an attempt to stymie Spain’s bid to register and enforce its court judgment here under Brussels I (a bid now the subject of proceedings timed for this coming December).

In the present proceedings, London Steam-Ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd v Spain (M/T PRESTIGE) [2020] EWHC 1582 (Comm) the club sought essentially to reconvene the arbitration to obtain from the tribunal an ASI against Spain and/or damages for breach of the duty to arbitrate and/or abide by the previous award, covering such things as its costs in the previous s.66 proceedings. By way of machinery it sought to serve out under s 18 of the 1996 Act. Spain claimed sovereign immunity and said these further claims were not arbitrable.

The immunity claim nearly succeeded, but fell at the last fence. There was, Henshaw J said, no agreement to arbitrate under s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978, which would have sidelined immunity: Spain might be bound not to raise the claim except in arbitration under the principle in The Yusuf Cepnioglu [2016] EWCA Civ 386, but this did not amount to an agreement to arbitrate. Nor was there, on the facts, any submission within s.2. However, he then decided that s.3, the provision about taking part in commercial activities, was applicable and allowed Spain to be proceeded against.

Having disposed of the sovereign immunity point, it remained to see whether the orders sought against Spain — an ASI or damages — were available in the arbitration. Henshaw J thought it well arguable that they were. Although Spain could not be sued for breach of contract, since it had never in so many words promised not to sue the club, it was arguable that neither Brussels I nor s.13 of the 1978 Act barred the ASI claim in the arbitration, and that if an ASI might be able to be had, then there must be at least a possibility of damages in equity under Lord Cairns’s Act.

No doubt there will be an appeal. But this decision gives new hope to P&I and other interests faced with opponents who choose, even within the EU, to treat London arbitration agreements as inconsequential pieces of paper to be ignored with comparative immunity.

Singapore Passes Legislation to Give Effect to the Third Group of Amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006

On 5 June 2018, the International Labour Conference (ILC) at its 107th Session approved the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. The amendments were agreed by the Special Tripartite Committee on 27 April 2018 at its third meeting at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) headquarters in Geneva. The agreed amendments were the result of the work undertaken by the ILO, in view of the Resolution adopted by the ILC at its 94th (Maritime ) Session concerning the effects of maritime piracy on the shipping industry, and concern Regulations 2.1, 2.2, and 2.5 of the Convention which deal with the seafarers’ employment agreement (SEA), the seafarers’ right to be paid wages, and the seafarers’ right to be repatriated, respectively.

In particular, the amendments stipulate that a new paragraph will be inserted to Standard A 2.1. ensuring that a SEA shall continue to have effect while a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates or armed robbers. The term ‘piracy’ is given the same meaning as in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). Armed robbery against ships is defined as ‘any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of piracy, committed for private ends and directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such a ship, within a State’s internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea, or any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described above’.

Furthermore, a new paragraph will be inserted to Standard A 2.2. stating that, where a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates or armed robbers, wages and other contractual benefits under the SEA, relevant collective bargaining agreements or applicable national laws, shall continue to be paid during the whole period of captivity and until the seafarer is released and duly repatriated or, where the seafarer dies while in captivity until the date of death as determined in accordance with national laws or regulations.

Finally, in Regulation 2.5, paragraph 8 will be replaced to ensure that the seafarers’ right to be repatriated shall not lapse where a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates and armed robbers. The terms piracy and armed robbery against ships shall have the same meaning as in Standard A2.1.

According to the process to be followed for the amendment of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 under Article XIV of the Convention, the agreed amendments have now been notified to all Member States whose ratification of the Convention was registered before the date of the 107th Session of the ILC. The Member States will have two years from that notification to express a formal disagreement to the agreed amendments. Unless more than 40 per cent of ratifying Member States, representing not less than 40 per cent of the world gross tonnage, have formally expressed their disagreement with the amendments, they will enter into force six months after the end of the two years. Since no formal disagreements have been expressed, the expected date for entry into force is 26 December 2020.

Singapore is one of the very first States to pass legislation to enable domestic law to give effect to the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. On 25 March 2020, the Singapore Parliament passed a Bill to amend the Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour Convention) Act 2014, which will take the force of law later this year. The Bill focuses on two points. First, it makes any necessary amendments to Singapore law to enhance the employment protection for captive seafarers. Secondly, it provides insurers with a statutory right to become subrogated to seafarers’ rights where, under a contract of insurance or other financial security, an insurer has paid for liabilities arising from a shipowner’s obligation to repatriate a seafarer.

Who is an “operator of a seagoing ship” for the purposes of the 1976 Limitation Convention?

In a recent blog post I commented on various gaps in the limitation regime and the Admiralty court has now given guidance as to how another gap may be plugged – namely whilst an “operator of a seagoing ship” is a “person entitled to limit liability” pursuant to article 1.2 of the 1976 Limitation Convention, what is meant by the term “operator”? That is a term that is not defined in the Convention nor in the travaux preparatoires to the Convention, Furthermore, the issue has not been considered in any prior case and there is no helpful commentary in any of the leading textbooks on the subject.

In the case of the “Stema Barge II”(2020) EWHC 1294 (Admlty) Teare J has engaged in a careful and cogent analysis of the issue. The judge notes firstly that article 2.1 refers to the “manager and operator of a seagoing ship” and comments that in many instances there is considerable overlap between “manager” and “operator” and that the terms may often be used interchangeably:

“I therefore consider that the ordinary meaning of “the operator of a ship” includes the “the manager of a ship”. Indeed, in many cases involving a conventional merchant ship there may be little scope for operator to have any wider meaning than that of manager”. (para 74)

However, he goes on to say that a person may be an “operator” even if that person does not engage in the more conventional management activities which would include manning, fuelling, technical and safety supervision, trading, deployment of the ship etc.

The “Stema Barge II” was an unmanned dumb barge which required unique handling as explained by the judge:.

“The present case does not involve a conventional merchant ship but a dumb barge, laden with cargo, which is towed from the loading port to the discharge location, left there by the tug and thereafter “attended” (to use a neutral word) by a company which places men on board with instructions to operate the machinery of the dumb barge. The question which arises in these circumstances is whether the ordinary meaning of “the operator of a ship” in article 1(2) can include those who physically operate the machinery of the ship and those who cause the machinery of the ship to be physically operated, or whether the ordinary meaning of “the operator of a ship” is limited to the manager of the ship.” (para 75)

The judge concludes that:

“I have therefore concluded that the ordinary meaning of “the operator of a ship” in article 1(2) of the 1976 Limitation Convention embraces not only the manager of the ship but also the entity which, with the permission of the owner, directs its employees to board the ship and operate her in the ordinary course of the ship’s business.”

Whilst the facts of the case may have been somewhat special the decision may have an impact on the wider issue of who is deemed to be an “operator” of an unmanned ship and whether an entity that operates the controls of an unmanned ship “in the ordinary course of the ship’s business” from shore can limit its liability. It is true that in the case of the “Stema Barge II” the entity that sought the right to limit had actually boarded the barge in order to be able to operate its machinery. However, it does not seem that the physical boarding of the vessel should necessarily be a restricting factor and there are indications  that the judge was thinking in more general terms. For example, he makes the following more general observations:

“The question which arises in these circumstances is whether the ordinary meaning of “the operator of a ship” in article 1(2) can include those who physically operate the machinery of the ship and those who cause the machinery of the ship to be physically operated…” (para 75)

“Those who cause an unmanned ship to be physically operated…” (para 81)

It is true that the judge says at para 74 that:

“Indeed, in many cases involving a conventional merchant ship there may be little scope for operator to have any wider meaning than that of manager.”

However, it is equally true that an unmanned ship is not a “conventional merchant ship.”

Hello operator? Limitation of liability and operator of dumb barge.

 

Splitt Chartering APS & Ors v Saga Shipholding Norway AS & Ors [2020] EWHC 1294 (Admlty) (22 May 2020)   involves a limitation action in connection with an underwater cable carrying electricity from France to England which was allegedly damaged by the anchor of the dumb barge STEMA BARGE II. The cable owners, RTE, accepted that the registered owner and a charterer Stema Shipping A/S could limit, but did not accept that the third party it had in its sights, Stema Shipping (UK) limited, a company said to be the operator of STEMA BARGE II whilst it was at anchor off Dover, was entitled to limit liability under the Limitation Convention 1976.

A shipment of rock armour, to be used for repairing the storm damage to the Dover to Folkestone railway line in December 2015, was transported from a quarry in Norway on the barge STEMA BARGE II. The barge arrived off Dover under towage on 7 November 2016, was anchored and then the tug departed. Storm force winds of up to force 9 from Storm Angus were forecast and it was decided to let STEMA BARGE II ride out the storm. STEMA BARGE II began to drag her anchor and at 0634 on 20 November 2016 an undersea cable (cable 12) supplying electricity from France to England registered a tripping.

Stema UK had placed a barge master, Mr. Zeebroek, and crewmember, Mr. Hayman, on board STEMA BARGE II, under a superintendent ashore, Mr. Upcraft. Could Stema UK limit as an operator of the vessel? RTE argued that the operator of a vessel is the person or entity which has “direct responsibility for the management and control of the ship” as regards “the commercial, technical and crewing operations of the ship.” – and that person was Stema A/S, not Stema UK.

Teare J considered that Stema UK were not “the manager of the ship” which would be the person entrusted by the owner with sufficient of the tasks involved in ensuring that a vessel is safely operated, properly manned, properly maintained and profitably employed to justify describing that person as the manager of the ship. A person who is entrusted with one limited task of management may be described as assisting in the management of the ship, rather than as being the manager of the ship.

However, it could qualify as the “operator” of the ship. For the purposes of article 1(2) of the 1976 Limitation Convention, “the operator of a ship” was not intended to cover those on board the vessel physically operating the vessel’s machinery, but imported a notion of management and control over the operation of the ship. Those who cause an unmanned ship to be physically operated have some management and control over the ship and could be said to be its operator, if with the owner’s permission they send their employees on board the ship with instructions to operate the ship’s machinery in the ordinary course of the ship’s business.

The use of the definite article “the” and the singular form of “operator” did not mean that there could be only one “operator”. The definite article was also used in relation to owner and charterer; yet there could be more than one owner, because there can be co-owners, and there could be more than one charterer, because there could be a time charterer and a voyage charterer.

From the barge’s arrival off Dover on 7 November 2016 to the date of the damage to the cable on 20 November 2016, Stema UK had a real involvement with STEMA BARGE II. Not only did its employees anchor her but they prepared the barge for lying safely at anchor. During the discharge operations they operated the barge’s machinery so as to ensure that she was safely ballasted. No personnel of Stema A/S were on board; only personnel of Stema UK (though not permanently because there was no accommodation on board the barge).

Even if Stema UK, as receiver/buyer of the cargo were obliged on the facts of this case to anchor and secure STEMA BARGE II that conduct still amounted to the operation of Stema Barge II. They provided a service of operating STEMA BARGE II in circumstances where there was no-one else to operate her.  The role of Stema UK was limited both in time and in the scope of its activities, but then the scope of the activities required to operate a dumb barge are necessarily limited.

Accordingly, the nature of Stema UK’s operation of STEMA BARGE II off Dover was such as to make it appropriate to describe Stema UK as the operator of the barge off Dover.

The Existence of a Possessory Lien in respect of a Claim would Affect the Priority to be Given to the Costs Incurred in Enforcing that Claim in an Admiralty Action in Rem

It is well settled that in actions against the proceeds of sale of property arrested in rem, costs have the same priority as the claim in respect of which they have been incurred. However, it remains uncertain whether the proper application of this rule should result in costs being accorded the same priority as a possessory lien or a statutory lien where a claimant has a possessory lien over an arrested ship in respect of a claim which, but for the possessory lien, would have priority only as a statutory lien in admiralty. In the recent case of Keppel FELS Ltd v Owner of the vessel “SONGA VENUS” and Songa Offshore SE (The Songa Venus) [2020] SGHC 74, the Singapore High Court addressed this issue.

The claimants, Keppel FELS Ltd, provided various services to the vessel Songa Venus, including repairs, modifications, supply of materials, equipment and berthing. The owners of the vessel failed to pay for the said services, and so Keppel FELS Ltd commenced these proceedings, arrested the vessel, and obtained an order for the vessel to be appraised and sold without prejudice to their possessory lien over the vessel, if any. After the vessel was sold for US$3,749,463.14, Keppel FELS Ltd obtained final judgment for the sum of US$1,169,370 with interest. The court also held that Keppel FELS Ltd had a possessory lien over the vessel in respect of the portion of its claim relating to repairs, modifications, supply of various materials, equipment and services. The sums amounted to US$328,723 plus costs. The intervener, Songa Offshore SE, commenced a separate in rem action against the vessel for sums outstanding under a seller’s credit agreement which was secure by a second preferred mortgage over the vessel. Songa Offshore SE obtained a final judgment for the sum of US$34,200,000.

Against this backdrop, Keppel FELS Ltd filed an application to determine the priority of the relevant claims and payment out of the proceeds of sale. The parties were not in dispute as to the priority of the substantive claims. The dispute revolved around the costs of the claims. Keppel FELS Ltd argued that costs attributable to the portion of their claim for which they had a possessory lien should be accorded the same priority, ranking before the mortgage. However, Songa Offshore SE contended that all costs of Keppel FELS Ltd’s claim should be granted the priority of a statutory lien and rank below the mortgage.

The court found in favour of Keppel FELS. It explained that ‘considerations of justice and equity required the court to accord the disputed costs the same priority as the portion of Keppel FELS’ claim for which it had a possessory lien’. Particular emphasis was placed on the fact that, for the possessory lien holder to surrender the ship to the admiralty court, the admiralty court has to give an undertaking to put the possessory lien holder ‘exactly in the same position as if he/she had not surrendered the ship’. In principle, a possessory lien holder retains possession of the res until he/she has been paid in full, in return for its release. He/she does not have to initiate any legal proceedings to enforce the possessory lien and, thus, does not incur any legal costs. However, whenever the possessory lien holder has to surrender the ship to the admiralty court, he/she would have to initiate in rem proceedings to satisfy his/her claim through the judicial sale of the vessel. This implies that, for the admiralty court to fulfil its undertaking to put the possessory lien holder ‘exactly in the same position as if he/she had not surrendered the ship’, the admiralty court should protect the costs incurred by the possessory lien holder when bringing a claim in rem to the same extent as the possessory lien itself.