Charters, subjects and arbitrators’ jurisdiction

Hopeless appeals sometimes clear the air. One such was today’s appeal by the claimants in the arbitration decision of The Newcastle Express [2022] EWCA Civ 1555.

Owners of a largish bulker fixed her for a voyage carrying coal from Australia to China. The charter was on the terms of an accepted proforma containing a London arbitration clause, and subject to Rightship approval. The recap, however, contained the words SUB SHIPPER/RECEIVERS APPROVAL, and no sub was ever lifted. The charterers declined to accept the vessel, alleging that Rightship approval had not been obtained on time; the owners alleged wrongful repudiation, and claimed arbitration.

The charterers argued that because the necessary approvals had not been forthcoming no agreement of any kind had been concluded, and politely sat out the owners’ proceedings. The arbitration tribunal decided that there had been a concluded contract; that it therefore had jurisdiction; and that the owners were entitled to something over $280,000 in damages. On an appeal under ss.67 and 69 of the Arbitration Act Jacobs J allowed the charterers’ s.67 appeal, holding that there had never been either a contract or an agreement to arbitrate anything; hence neither the charter nor the arbitration bound the charterers. For good measure he also said that he would have allowed a s.69 appeal on the law.

The owners unsuccessfully appealed to the Court of Appeal. They argued first, one suspects without much enthusiasm, that the “sub shipper/receivers approval” term was not a precondition of there being any contract, but instead acknowledged the presence of an agreement and merely qualified the duty to perform it. The Court of Appeal had little difficulty sweeping this point aside. Terms fairly clearly giving a person the right to disapprove a transaction on commercial grounds, as here, were fairly consistently construed in the same way as other “subject to contract” terms: and this one was clearly intended to allow either party to walk away without penalty.

This left the separability point: why not invoke the “one-stop-shop” preference adumbrated in Fiona Trust & Holding Corporation v Privalov [2007] UKHL 40, [2007] 4 All ER 951 and engage in a bit of constructive interpretation, so as to treat the parties as having agreed that even if the main agreement hadn’t been concluded they had agreed on any dispute, including whether the agreement was enforceable, being decided by arbitrators? To this, however, there was a simple answer. Harbour Assurance v Kansa Insurance Co [1993] QB 701 before the 1996 Act, and the post-1996 Fiona Trust case itself, showed that this chicken wouldn’t fight. It was all very well to separate out the arbitration agreement in cases where the parties had seemingly agreed but there was some alleged vitiating factor, such as mistake or duress, in their agreement. But here the very point at issue was whether there had been agreement on anything in the first place: if there had not, any arbitration provision fell with the agreement itself. Game set and match, therefore, to the charterers.

This must all be right. Admittedly it does leave claimants in a quandary when faced with defendants who, like the charterers in this case, deny that parties ever reached agreement and refuse to arbitrate. Do they have to go to the expense of an arbitration in the full knowledge that they may then have to traverse the same ground again in a court to prove that the arbitrator had jurisdiction to decide in their favour?

The solution suggested by Males LJ at [86], an agreement ad hoc to arbitrate the jurisdiction point, is certainly useful, though it requires agreement from the other party. A further possibility might be to amend s.32 of the Act. Currently this allows an application to the court to determine jurisdiction, but only with the agreement either of both parties or of the tribunal and the court. There is something to be said for relaxing this requirement where one party refuses to take part in the proceedings at all, and saying that in such a case either party can demand a court determination as of right. Ironically the threat to force on the other party a quick trip to the Commercial Court, with the extra costs that involves, might act as a wholesome encouragement to agree to the one-stop-shop businesspeople are always said to want and which Males LJ advocates.

The Law Commission, as it providentially happens, is currently looking at s.67 and s.32, and has a consultation paper out (in which it tentatively suggests, among other things, that a s.67 appeal should not be a rehearing except where the other party plays no part in the arbitration). This is perhaps another idea that could be discreetly fed to it. You have till 15 December, when the consultation closes, to get any proposals together.

Brexit, the endgame. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022.

On 22 Sept 2022 the UK Government introduced The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022 which provides for two sunset dates for existing retained EU law. On 31st December 2023, all retained EU law will expire, unless otherwise preserved. Any retained EU law that remains in force after this date will be assimilated in the domestic statute book, by the removal of the special EU law features previously attached to it. The Bill provides a second sunset date by including an extension mechanism for delaying the expiry of specified pieces of retained EU law until 2026. The Bill will also reinstate domestic law as the highest form of law on the UK statute book. In case of conflict with retained EU law domestic law will prevail.

There is very little by way of retained EU law that is relevant to the maritime practitioner. The Brussels Regulation and Lugano Convention both ceased to have effect as at the end of the implementation period. The Port Services Regulation survived but is currently on death row and is the subject of a government consultation as to its repeal.

What does remain, however, are the two conflicts of law regulations, Rome I for contracts and Rome II for tort/delict, both now suitably domesticated as UK law, and also the Rome Convention 1980 which was brought into UK law by the Contracts Applicable Law Act 1990, now amended so that it will continue to apply to existing contracts entered into between 1 April 1991 (the date on which the Rome Convention came into force) and 16 December 2009 (after which Rome 1 replaced the Convention in the relevant EU Member States). 

It is likely that these three pieces of retained law will either be specifically retained, or their expiry delayed until the end of 2026, but who knows? Should they disappear into the sunset, conflicts of law will return to the common law rules for contracts made after the sunset date and the rules in Part III of the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995 for torts committed after the sunset date.

PAPERLESS TRADE: ANOTHER STEP FURTHER

Charles Darwin had a point. It was not, he said, the strongest of the species that survived, nor the most intelligent, but that most adaptable to change.  So too with law and digital transformation. The government recognises this well. As G7 President, the UK has been actively leading the process to achieve the legal environment for the full digitisation of trade documents. It has now put its money where its mouth is, with its swift introduction in the Lords (on 12 October, only five months after it appeared) of the Law Commission’s draft Electronic Trade Documents Bill.  

The Bill is the outcome of consultations and a later report on how to achieve the digitisation of trade documents and thereby enhance paperless commerce. It aims to cement the legal recognition of electronic trade documents, including most importantly bills of lading, mate’s receipts, ship’s delivery orders, warehouse receipts, marine insurance policies and cargo insurance certificates. (It also includes provisions dealing with commercial paper such as bills of exchange and promissory notes, though these today are a good deal less important.)

Quite right too. Digitisation is an inevitable part of today’s global economy, with big data and cloud-based computing the driving force of industry and its supply chains and the smooth running of trade dependent not only on commercial operations but also to a great extent on the instantaneous turnaround and exchange of the relevant documents. Yet a huge number of the underlying processes and operations still rely “on practices developed by merchants hundreds of years ago.” This matters for us: under the latest statistics from the Department of Trade, international trade is worth around £1.266 trillion annually to the UK.

The problem arises in particular with the paper documentation traditionally used for proving shipment of the goods and their quality, and for their handover while in transit. Pre-eminent among these are bills of lading which not only act as receipts and furnish parties with  significant data about the goods, but also serve as documents of title. The problem is a big one: the Digital Container Shipping Association has estimated that ocean carriers issued 16 million original bills of lading in 2020, more than 99% in paper form, quite apart from the myriad other documents that accompany goods in transit. The exercise in paper-shuffling that this involves is mind-blowing; its threat to the smooth operation of commerce was thrown into stark relief by COVID-19 lockdowns that forced the paper-shufflers to be sent home.  No wonder this accelerated digitisation across the world. As the Law Commission observed, it was partly in response to the complexities brought by the pandemic that the International Chamber of Commerce asked governments to take immediate steps remove legal requirements for hard-copy trade documentation, and to consider longer-term plans for establishing legal frameworks applicable to electronic documents.

The Bill is commendably brief, consisting of only seven clauses. It starts (cl.1) with definitions of “paper trade document” and “qualifying electronic document” before presenting a non-exhaustive list of trade documents affected by it (excluding some more exotic instruments subject to the Uncertificated Securities Regulations 2001, and curiosities such as bearer bonds). Further provisions relate to what is to be regarded as possession, transfer and indorsement of electronic documents (cl.3), and deal with the change of a paper form to an electronic one or vice versa (cl.4).

The nub of the problem is, of course, possession: in English law you cannot in any real sense “possess” a mere stream of electrons. Therefore, in order for an electronic trade document to have similar effects and functionality as its paper equivalent, the Bill in cl.2 lays down gateway criteria. These consist of content requirements, and stipulations about the reliability of the underlying digital system, the “integrity” of an electronic trade document as regards originality and authenticity, the possibility of exclusive control, divestibility of that control, and the reliable identification of the persons in control of a document at any time.

The Commission were rightly aware of the possible impact of the latest innovations and emergent technologies brought by the fourth industrial revolution. In Appendix 6 to its report, it assessed the use of distributed ledger technology (“DLT”) to support trade documents in electronic form. Indeed, it points out that DLT, involving distribution of data among nodes accessible only by secured keys in order to render it effectively tamper-proof, offers very significant possibilities for the acceptance, validity, and functionality of electronic documents in international trade equivalent to that accorded to their paper counterparts. 

These reforms can only be welcomed. If passed, the Bill will undoubtedly facilitate cross-border commerce by cutting unnecessary costs and reducing processing times and delays. Digitising documentation also contributes to sustainability, eco-efficiency, and environmental values by mitigating harmful carbon emissions, quite apart from boost the UK’s reputation as a global centre for international commerce and trade.

If there is a criticism of the Bill, it is its lack of detail. It does not contain any provisions on the procedural aspects of digitisation of documents, the use and exploitation of digitised documentation, or the mechanics of changing its form. In addition, the effectiveness of the gateway criteria might be achieved only upon the adoption of the specific protocols regarding the digital systems, their control mechanisms, and accreditation standards. One suspects in practice that if the bill becomes law, a detailed commentary will become essential for its practical application. This matters: unless such matters are satisfactorily sorted out, an electronic trade document that is effective in one jurisdiction might not be treated in the same way in another. 

Moreover, while trade documents are being transferred across borders, cross-border disputes are at least to some extent inevitable. This means that we will need to give attention to the private international law rules specific to such documents: even if they contain an English choice-of-law clause, this will not necessarily ensure the application of English law to all their aspects. The Law Commission, to its credit, has recognised this. It has already launched a follow-up project on the Conflict of laws and emerging technology to ensure the rules of applicable law and jurisdiction in an increasingly digitised world. This issue is still at the pre-consultation stage – this might mean that unless private international law rules applicable to the related matters are achieved, the current Bill might not be operable or practically effective.

Some other tidying up may also be necessary. There may be a need, for example, to clarify matters by a few further amendments to the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1992 and the Bills of Exchange Act 1882 over and above those in cl.6 of the Bill. which are not in line with the latest technological and legal developments and in particular, the new Bill. But even if there is some way to go the Bill is a very important development. We, for one, welcome it.

Professor Andrew Tettenborn

Dr Aygun Mammadzada

Covid lockdown and force majeure. Sale of vessel for demolition

The emergence of the COVID pandemic in March 2020 led to a great interest in commercial circles as to the effect on their contracts of force majeure clauses. One such case is NKD Maritime Ltd v Bart Maritime (No. 2) Inc [2022] EWHC 1615 (Comm) (24 June 2022) which involved the sale of a vessel for demolition on the beaches of India at the time the world was waking up to the pandemic.

On 5 March 2020 Bart Maritime concluded a MOA with NKD for the sale of a ship for scrapping in India with delivery to be at “outer anchorage Alang”. An initial payment of 30% of the purchase price was made and the vessel sailed to India but due to the risk of COVID the vessel was refused entry to the Gulf of Khambat Vessel Traffic Scheme (VTS) on 21 March 2020. Shortly afterwards India went into lockdown on 25 March 2020 which was extended on 14 April 2020 for a further 15 days. During this time the vessel was waiting some 100 nautical miles off Alang and on 14 April the buyers purported to cancel pursuant to cl.10 which gave either party the right to terminate the contract “should the Seller be unable to transfer title of the Vessel or should the Buyer be unable to accept transfer of the Vessel” due to (among other things) “restraint of governments, princes, rulers or people of any nation”. Owners claimed that this amounted to a repudiation and claimed retention of the initial payment as well as damages.

Three issues arose before Butcher J. First, did clause 10 operate so that transfer of title meant that there had to be a delivery of the vessel? Butcher J held that NKD were not entitled to cancel pursuant to cl.10 as, although delivery was affected by the COVID restrictions, these did not affect the ability of the seller to transfer title of the vessel. Transfer of title required payment of the price, delivery of the bill of sale and deletion from the relevant ship’s registry, and the COVID delays did not render Bart unable to transfer title. The MOA referred to both delivery and transfer of title, but they were not interchangeable terms and sometimes the terms appeared in the same clause meaning different things.

Second, if, contrary to the first finding cl.10 did require delivery as part of transfer of title, had there been a delivery as of 14 April? The vessel was not delivered at the delivery location as she had been told  not to enter the Vessel Traffic Scheme, and had anchored some 100 nautical miles off Alang.  However, there had been delivery pursuant to the substituted delivery provisions in cl.2 (a) of the MOA which provided

“[t]hat “if, on the Vessel’s arrival, the Delivery Location is inaccessible for any reason whatsoever … the Vessel shall be delivered and taken over by the Buyer as near thereto as she may safely get at a safe and accessible berth or at anchorage which shall be designated by the Buyer, always provided that such berth or anchorage shall be subject to the approval of the Seller which shall not be unreasonably withheld. If the Buyer fails to nominate such place within 24 (twenty four) hours of arrival, the place at which it is customary for vessel (sic) to wait shall constitute the Delivery Location”.

The delivery location was clearly inaccessible and the vessel had ‘arrived’ as it had got as near as possible to the delivery location. Although waiting outside the VTS was not a customary waiting place, for the purpose of the clause it was a suitable place to wait given the order of the port authority for the vessel not to enter the VTS.

Third, if cl.10 did require delivery as part of transfer of title, and there had been no delivery, could the buyer rely on cl.10? There was clearly a temporary restraint of government, but that was insufficient to show that Bart had been ‘unable’ to transfer title. ‘Inability’ to perform for the purposes of clause 10 by reason of a temporary restraint of governments depended on whether the probable period of that restraint was such as materially to undermine the commercial adventure. “Inability” was not to be judged simply by reference to whether there was inability to perform by the contractual cancellation date.

An analysis similar to that undertaken as regards frustration was required. Relevant factors were: the sale contract was for demolition of the ship, not for its trading; demolition would take a year from delivery; some delays were to be anticipated in demolition given that there were only two times in the month that the tides were such as to enable the vessel to be beached; delays were not anticipated beyond the expiry of the lockdown on 3 May and on 15 April revised guidance was issued by the Indian Home Secretary which permitted certain activities, including shipbreaking, to resume as of 20 April. The Court noted that had the buyers not purported to cancel it is likely that the vessel would have arrived at Alang outer anchorage on 1 May.

Butcher J concluded that that NKD was not entitled to terminate the MOA on 14 April 2020, and in doing so it was in default under the MOA and had repudiated the contract. Bart was entitled to retain the initial payment and to claim further compensation to the extent to which the initial payment did not cover any losses which it had sustained as a result of NKD’s non-fulfilment of the contract.

The decision is particularly interesting as to the construction of force majeure clauses in regard to the effects of the pandemic on contractual performance, particularly as regards the analysis of whether these had caused an ‘inability’ to perform.

Insurance and P&I: life in Europe just got easier

Whatever you think of Brexit, there can be little doubt that English P&I Clubs have reaped a substantial dividend from it when it comes to jurisdiction. A discreet bottle or two will no doubt be cracked open as a result of Foxton J’s judgment today in QBE Europe SA v Generali España de Seguros y Reaseguros [2022] EWHC 2062 (Comm).

The facts will be entirely familiar to any P&I claims handler. The Angara, a small superyacht insured against P&I risks by QBE UK under a policy later transferred to QBE Europe, allegedly damaged an underwater cable linking Mallorca and Menorca to the tune of nearly $8 million. The cable owners’ underwriters Generali brought a subrogated claim in the Spanish courts against QBE, relying on a Spanish direct action statute (Arts. 465-467 of the 2014 Ley de Navegación Marítima). QBE pointed to a London arbitration clause requiring disputes between insurer and assured to be arbitrated in London, said that if Generali wanted to enforce the policy they had to take the rough with the smooth. This being a post-Brexit suit, they sought an ASI.

Generali resisted. They argued that they were enforcing a direct delictual liability under Spanish law, and that in any case since the arbitration clause merely referred to assured and insurer (and indeed the whole policy excluded any third party rights under the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Act 1999) they were unaffected by it.

Pre-Brexit, QBE’s position would have been fairly hopeless: intra-EU ASIs were banned, and furthermore the effect of Assens Havn (Judicial cooperation in civil matters) [2017] EUECJ C-368/16 (noted here in this blog) would have largely pre-empted the matter in the Spanish courts.

But in this, one of the first post-Brexit P&I cases to come to the English courts, QBE won hands down. Solid first instance authority had extended the rule in The Angelic Grace [1995] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 87 (i.e. that very good reasons had to be shown for not granting an ASI to halt foreign proceedings brought in blatant breach of contract) to cases where the person suing was enforcing transferred rights, as where a subrogated insurer sought to take advantage of contractual provisions between its insured and the defendant. That line of decisions applied here: and Foxton J duly followed it, confirmed it and lengthened it by one.

He then asked whether, properly characterised, Generali’s suit was a tort claim or in substance a claim to piggy-back on the policy QBE had issued. His Lordship had no doubt that it was the latter. True, the Spanish direct action provisions disapplied certain limitations in the policy, such as pay to be paid provisions and a number of defences based on misconduct by the assured; but the matter had to be viewed in the round, and overall the cause of action arising under the 2014 Spanish law, being based on the existence of a policy and limited to sums assured under it, was clearly contract-based. It remained to deal with Generali’s further point based on the limited wording of the arbitration clause. Here his Lordship accepted that parties could provide that an arbitration clause in a contract did not apply to those suing under some derivative title, but said that much more would be required to demonstrate such an intent: the mere fact of reference to the original parties to the contract was not nearly enough.

And that was it: having failed to show any substantial reason why the ASI should not go, Generali were ordered to discontinue the Spanish proceedings.

What messages can P&I clubs and other insurers taker away? Three are worth referring to. One is that the enforcement of jurisdiction and arbitration clauses in a European context is now fairly straightforward. Another refers to the specific case of Spain, which altered its direct action statute in 2014: the QBE case has confirmed that under the new dispensation, as much as under the old, an attempt to use direct action as a means of getting at insurers abroad will continue to be be regarded as essentially an attempt to enforce the insurance contract. And third, judges in the UK are unlikely to be very receptive to attempts by claimants desperate to litigate at home to give arbitration or jurisdiction clauses an unnaturally narrow meaning.

Life, in short, has got a good deal easier for P&I interests. Now, where’s that bottle of cava?

Misrepresentation and “Reservation of Rights” in Charterparties

SK Shipping Euorope Ltd v. Capital VLCC 3 Corp (C Challenger) [2022] EWCA Civ 231

The charterers entered into a charterparty contract with the owners of the C Challenger in February 2017 for a period of two years. The charterparty contained a term warranting fuel consumption and speed. Following problems with a turbocharger, the charterers alleged inter alia that the owners had misrepresented the vessel’s performance capabilities. The charterers raised the issue concerning potential misrepresentation on the part of the owner of the capabilities of the chartered vessel during a meeting in London on 21 March 2017. It was not until 19 October 2017 that the charterers purported to rescind for misrepresentation or to terminate for repudiatory breach. During the period of March- September 2017, the charterers continued to use the vessel (by fixing occasionally sub-fixtures); deduct periodically from hire and reserve their rights.

The following day, the owners purported to terminate the charterparty on the basis that the charterers’ message was itself a renunciation.

The trial judge (Foxton, J) found that there was no actionable misrepresentation. Furthermore, it was held that charterers’ conduct (especially fixing the vessel for a sub-charterer in July 2017 for a voyage to Tunjung Pelapas) was incompatible with an attempt to reserve rights to set aside the charterparty for misrepresentation) even though they expressly indicated that they “reserve their rights” after alleging that the owners misrepresented the capabilities of the chartered vessel (i.e. speed and consumption) during charter negotiations. The charterers appealed on both grounds.

Was there an actionable misrepresentation?

The key to the charterers’ appeal was a letter sent on behalf of the owner during pre-contract negotiations on 22 November 2016. The charterers argued that the representations made to them in that letter with regard to the chartered vessel’s last three voyages, its average speed and performance, included a representation as to future performance; and such representation was repeated in each of the parties’ subsequent communications by the restatement of the same data; and the trial judge was erred in law in concluding that there was no inducement

The Court of Appeal found that on an objective reading of the 22 November 2016 letter, a prospective charterer would have understood it be saying “this is how my vessel has performed on its most recent voyages and these are the warranties which I am prepared to give” and nothing more. It can, therefore, be safely concluded that there was no representation as to the future performance of the vessel with regard to speed and consumption. The tribunal also found that the explanation in the 22 November 2016 letter relating to the average of the vessel’s last three voyages was deliberately omitted once the parties began to negotiate. The natural conclusion that emerges from that is that they did not become part of the negotiations on which the charter in dispute was based or became “embedded” in the charterparty. (given that the Court already found that the representations in the letter did not include a representation as to the future, this finding had no impact on the judgment). Also, the Court was adamant that the trial judge made no error of law when concluding that there was no inducement.

Reservation of Rights

This part of the judgment has serious practical consequences for the shipping industry. A part of the industry until recently operated on the basis that the words “reserving my rights” would provide a silver bullet for an innocent party in a dispute or litigation that might follow! There is now authority to the effect that this is not necessarily the case.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the general statement that “a reservation of rights will often have the effect of preventing subsequent conduct constituting an election to affirm or rescind a contract”. However, just like the first instance judge, the Court stressed that this was not an inevitable rule. On this point, the Court agreed with the Commercial Court’s statement that actions of the charterer, i.e. nature and consequences of any demand for future performance, may in some instances be incompatible with a reservation of rights. By considering all relevant circumstances existed at the time the order to proceed to Tanjung Pelapas was given, i.e. the fact that the voyage would last two months and that the general reservations made at the time concerned other complaints, not just the misdescription of the vessel, the Court of Appeal endorsed the decision of the Commercial Court that the order was intrinsically affirmatory conduct.

Lessons!

The judgment is a good reminder that construction of the representations from an objective point of view will be vital in determining whether there is an actionable misrepresentation or not. But this is hardly new. More significant message to the industry (and lawyers) is that it should not be assumed that “reservation of rights” language will always have the effect of reserving the rights of an innocent party. This kind of language will be construed in the light of surrounding circumstances and whether it will have the desired impact will largely depend on the future actions of the innocent party.  

It is worth noting that in deliberating the consumption and speed warranty issue, the Court of Appeal in its judgment made reference to the work of late Dr Nikaki and Professor Soyer “Enhancing Standardisation and Legal Certainty through Standard Charterparty Contracts” published as Chapter 5 in Charterparties Law, Practice and Emerging Legal Issues (Informa Law, 2018)).  

          

A classic problem returns – bills of lading, charterparties and the terms of the contract of carriage

As any shipping lawyer will tell you, the law is not at its tidiest when a bill of lading ends up in the hands of a voyage charterer. Yesterday’s decision in Unicredit AG v Euronav NV [2022] EWHC 957 (Comm) adds a further chapter to the saga, which may be more tendentious than it looks.

The case arose out of the insolvency and suspected fraud of Indian oil trader GP (Gulf Petrochem FZC, now a restructured GP Global, not to be confused with oil major Gulf Oil). BP chartered the 150,000-ton Suezmax Sienna from her owners Euronav and agreed to sell her cargo to GP. GP financed the deal through Unicredit, under an arrangement whereby Gulf agreed to pledge and assign to Unicredit all rights in cargoes and rights arising under bills of lading, and agreed that it would resell the cargo to buyers who would pay Unicredit direct.

A bill of lading was issued by Euronav to BP. On the sale, Unicredit paid BP on GP’s behalf; but instead of the bill of lading being endorsed to GP, the charter itself was novated, BP dropping out and being supplanted by GP. BP retained the bill of lading, still made out in its favour.

In April 2020, GP sweet-talked Unicredit into condoning a series of STS transfers of the cargo to what seem to have been connected entities, despite the fact that the bill of lading was still in the hands of BP. The sub-buyers never paid Unicredit; at the same time GP showed worrying signs of financial strain. Unicredit now realised that something had gone badly wrong with the deal, with their security and with GP as a whole. It swiftly got BP to endorse the bill of lading to it and tried to salvage the situation by suing Euronav for delivering the cargo without its production.

The claim was unsuccessful. And rightly so. On the evidence it was clear that Unicredit had actually condoned the STS transfers in the knowledge that the bill of lading would not available, and therefore had only itself to blame. With this we have no argument.

But the claim also failed for another reason, which we are less sure about: namely, that the bill of lading in fact never governed the liabilities of Euronav in any case. The reason was this. When the bill was issued to BP, it was uncontroversial that it did not form the contract between the parties, since there was also a charter in force between BP and Euronav, and as between the two the charter prevailed (see Rodocanachi v Milburn (1887) 18 Q.B.D. 67). True, at the time of the STS transfers there was no longer a charter between BP and Euronav because GP had been substituted for BP. But this (it was said) made no difference. Although the bill of lading would have been the governing document had BP endorsed it to GP (Leduc v Ward (1888) 20 Q.B.D. 475), this did not apply where there had been no such transfer. In the present case there was no reason to infer that at that time the document’s status in BP’s hands had been intended to change from that of mere receipt to full contractual document; it therefore remained in the former category.

With respect, it is not entirely clear why this should be the case. For one thing, if a carrier issues a bill of lading to a charterer, arguably the reason why the bill of lading does not form the contract between the parties is simply that one has to choose between two inconsistent contracts, and that the obvious choice is the charter. If so, once the charter drops away as between those parties, there is no reason not to go back to the bill of lading. This seems, if one may say so, rather more convincing than the idea that the carrier is implicitly agreeing that the bill of lading gains contractual force if, and only if, endorsed by the charterer to someone else so as to cause a new contract to spring up. (In this connection it is worth remembering that it is equally possible for a bill of lading that once did have contractual force to cease to have it as a result of transfer to a charterer – see for instance The Dunelmia [1970] 1 Q.B. 289 – despite the fact that in such a case there can be no question of any new contract springing up.)

Put another way, it seems odd that entirely different results should follow according to whether a charterer transfers the bill of lading and retains the charter, or transfers the charter and retains the bill of lading.

There is also a practical point. Suppose that in the Unicredit case the unpaid party had not been Unicredit, but BP. BP might have thought that they were safe in allowing the charter to be novated in favour of GP provided they kept hold of the bill of lading and with it the assurance that the cargo could not reach GP’s hands without their consent. One suspects they would have been somewhat surprised to be told in such a case that the bill of lading was, and remained, of no effect despite the fact that they were no longer charterers of the vessel.

There clearly won’t be an appeal in this case, given the consent of Unicredit to what would otherwise have been a misdelivery. But the bill of lading point will no doubt give academics and others plenty to speculate about in the next editions of Scrutton, Aikens and other works. We await the results with interest.

Sanctions, force majeure. No obligation to accept payment in alternative currency.

MUR Shipping BV v RTI Ltd [2022] EWHC 467 (Comm) raises the question of whether the effect of financial sanctions obliges a contractual party to accept payment in a currency other than that specified in the contract. Mur Shipping BV (“the Owners” or “MUR”) concluded a Contract of Affreightment (“COA”) with RTI Ltd (“the Charterers” or “RTI”) in June 2016. Under the COA, the Charterers contracted to ship, and the Owners contracted to carry, approximately 280,000 metric tons per month of bauxite, in consignments of 30,000 – 40,000 metric tons, from Conakry in Guinea to Dneprobugsky in Ukraine. On 6 April 2018, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) applied sanctions (“the sanctions”) to RTI’s parent company, adding them to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. This led to the Owners invoking a force majeure clause in the COA by sending a force majeure notice (“FM Notice”) on 10 April 2018 in which the Owners said that it would be a breach of sanctions for the Owners to continue with the performance of the COA and noted that the “sanctions will prevent dollar payments, which are required under the COA”.

The force majeure clause provided for the suspension of the obligation of each party to perform the Charter Party while such Force Majeure Event is in operation.  The clause provided that

“36.3. A Force Majeure Event is an event or state of affairs which meets all of the following criteria:

a) It is outside the immediate control of the Party giving the Force Majeure Notice;

b) It prevents or delays the loading of the cargo at the loading port and/or the discharge of the cargo at the discharging port;

c) It is caused by one or more of acts of God, extreme weather conditions, war, lockout, strikes or other labour disturbances, explosions, fire, invasion, insurrection, blockade, embargo, riot, flood, earthquake, including all accidents to piers, shiploaders, and/or mills, factories, barges, or machinery, railway and canal stoppage by ice or frost, any rules or regulations of governments or any interference or acts or directions of governments, the restraint of princes, restrictions on monetary transfers and exchanges;

d) It cannot be overcome by reasonable endeavors from the Party affected.”

The claim arose from the fact that RTI had chartered in 7 vessels when MUR, alleging force majeure, suspended performance of the COA in April 2018, and was based on the difference between the COA and chartered in rates for these 7 vessels.

The tribunal accepted that the effect of both “primary” and “secondary” sanctions was drastic. Thus, normal commercial counterparties would be frightened of trading with the party that has been sanctioned, bank finance was likely to be frozen, and underwriters would be reluctant to insure normal trading activities. The tribunal also held that sanctions had an impact on the ability of the Charterers to make US dollar payments to the Owners. The tribunal held that, but for one point, the Owners’ case on force majeure succeeded. The point on which it failed was that, applying the terms of the force majeure clause, it could have been “overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected.” This was because the tribunal considered that the exercise of reasonable endeavours required the Owners to accept a proposal made by the Charterers to make payment in €. The tribunal described this as a “completely realistic alternative” to the payment obligation in the COA, which was to pay in US dollars.

Jacobs J held that the Tribunal had erred in their finding that “reasonable endeavours” required the Owners to accept the Charterers’ proposal to make payment in a non-contractual currency. A party does not have to perform the contract otherwise than in accordance with the contract in order to avoid a force majeure event. There was no reason to construe the force majeure clause as being concerned only with contractual obligations directly concerned with loading and discharging: the force majeure event may have an impact on other contractual obligations which then have the causative impact required by clause 36.3 (b). Jacobs J noted “Clause 36.3 (b) is an important part of the force majeure clause: it identifies the necessary consequence, as a matter of causation, of the “event or state of affairs” described in other parts of the clause. However, it is clear from clause 36.3 (c) that there may be a wide range of different matters which bring about the consequence that loading or discharge is delayed or prevented. Those matters include “restrictions on monetary transfers and exchanges”.

Commercial contracts, wasted expenditure and lost profits

Anyone drafting a commercial contract these days will invariably add, somewhere, some kind of exemption clause. Unfortunately the drafter is frequently in a hurry, aware that there are a limited number of billable hours he can plausibly attribute to a mere drafting exercise; and as often as not the clause will be lifted from some precedent in the firm’s files, without too much thought about what it might actually mean in real life.

One suspects that this is essentially what had happened in Soteria Insurance Ltd v IBM United Kingdom Ltd [2022] EWCA Civ 440. But whatever the history, the result was an expensive trip to the Court of Appeal because something like £80 million turned on the issue of the understanding of relatively few words.

To simplify, IBM agreed in 2014 to install a computer system for an insurance company, CISGIL, for a price of about £50 million. The contract contained a term which, while allowing a list of specific types of claim characterised as “direct loss” in the event of breach, contained a general disclaimer (Clause 23.3) as follows:

“[N]either party shall be liable to the other or any third party for any Losses arising under and/or in connection with this Agreement (whether in contract, tort (including negligence), breach of statutory or otherwise) which are indirect or consequential Losses, or for loss of profit, revenue, savings (including anticipated savings), data …, goodwill, reputation (in all cases whether direct or indirect) even if such Losses were foreseeable and notwithstanding that a party had been advised of the possibility that such Losses were in the contemplation of the other party or any third party”

There was also a damages cap of roughly £80 million.

Delays occurred; things went wrong; CIGSIL declined to pay a stage invoice tendered by IBM; and the contract came to an end. Each side blamed the other for the debacle. The judge (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC)) and the Court of Appeal both held that it had been IBM who had wrongfully repudiated the contract; with the tedious details of this we are not concerned.

At this point, however, the issue of damages arose. Seeing difficulties in claiming for its consequential loss of profits because of Clause 23.3, CIGSIL chose to quantify its claim instead by reference to its wasted expenditure, a figure eventually quantified by O’Farrell J at about £122 million. IBM at this point said that this was an exercise in pettifogging: whatever label CIGSIL chose to put on its claim, it was at bottom trying to claim for its loss of profits, which was precisely what Clause 23.3 prevented it doing.

O’Farrell J (see [2021] EWHC 347 (TCC) at [680]-[686] sided with IBM. CIGSIL was, she said, claiming for its loss of bargain; the measure of that loss of bargain was “the savings, revenues and profits that would have been achieved had the IT solution been successfully implemented.” And while CIGSIL was entitled to frame its claim as one for wasted expenditure if it so wished, that simply represented a different method of quantifying the loss of its bargain; it did not “change the characteristics of the losses for which compensation is sought”. It followed that the claim was inadmissible.

This certainly looked like a robust approach. It also chimed in neatly with modern academic analysis of expectation and reliance damages. At bottom both seek, in different ways, to put a claimant in the position he would be in had the contract been kept; either by showing the gains he would have made but now won’t, or by showing that an investment is now wasted that otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Nevertheless the Court of Appeal was having none of it. On a proper reading of Clause 23.3, the intention was indeed to exclude claims based on profits foregone, but to leave intact claims based on wasted expense. Even if both were similar animals on deep analysis, wasted expenditure did not fall within the meaning of loss of profit or revenue; from which it followed that in the absence of a specific reference to wasted expense, this remained recoverable.

Despite the seductive, apparently no-nonsense approach of O’Farrell J, we think the Court of Appeal got it right. When dealing with the interpretation of exception clauses, the fundamental issue is not any question of academic argument or analysis, but simply what reasonable businesspeople would have made of the words used. And a non-lawyer would undoubtedly say that money wasted was not the same thing as future gain foregone. Furthermore, as the Court pointed out, they would also have seen that there could be good reason to allow the former on the basis that it was likely to be relatively quantifiable and predictable, but to exclude the latter as likely to be open-ended and unquantifiable.

This case is thus good news for business certainty. Nevertheless, those drafting commercial contracts would do well not only to read it but to draft their contracts even more carefully. If those in the position of IBM do not like a result under which they remain liable for seven-figure sums in wasted expenditure, they can always exclude such claims expressly. They should also perhaps take the trouble to add that any such limit applies also to cases of repudiation, since even despite Soteriou, as a result of the decision in Kudos Catering (UK) v Manchester Central Convention Complex [2013] EWCA Civ 38, there remains a possibility that some clauses may be construed as being limited to mere defective performance and not applying to actual repudiation.

If a client complains about the number of billable hours devoted to such issues of drafting, a solicitor can always murmur in his ear that the investment is probably a good one. The Court of Appeal is an expensive place to end up in, however interesting its judgments may be to other practitioners and law professors, and no sensible businessman should want to go there if he can possibly help it.

Sale of goods and summary judgment for the price: common sense rules.

Sale of goods law can at times be a bit esoteric. When it is, the difficulty can lie in making sure it accords with common sense as practised by businesspeople. Martin Spencer J managed just that today in dismissing what is best described as a pettifogging defence which counsel (absolutely properly, given his duty to his client) had raised to what looked like a straightforward claim for payment for building materials.

In Readie Construction v Geo Quarries [2021] EWHC 3030 (QB) Geo agreed to supply something over £600,000-worth of aggregate to builders Readie for a warehouse project in Bedfordshire. After most of the deliveries had been made and paid for, it turned out that something seemed to have gone badly wrong. Following heavy rain, the aggregate that had been used to form the base of the warehouse had melted into some sort of unprepossessing slush. Readie told Geo to stop deliveries and refused to accept or pay for the final batch, saying that Geo must have supplied the wrong substance. Geo invoiced Readie for the balance of the price and sought summary judgment, invoking the following Clause 4.1 from the sale contract:

The Customer shall make payment in full without any deduction or withholding whatsoever on any account by the end of the calendar month following the month in which the relevant invoice is dated. If payment is not received in full when due the Customer shall pay interest on the unpaid amount at a rate per annum which is 8% and above Bank of England base lending rate from time to time and the Customer shall pay to, or reimburse the Company on demand, on a full indemnity basis, all costs and liabilities incurred by the Company in relation to the suing for, or recovering, any sums due including, without limitation the costs of any proceedings in relation to a contract between the Company and a Customer incurred in or suffered by any default or delay by the Customer in performing any of its obligations. Payment shall only be made to the bank account nominated in writing by the Company on the invoice. Time of payment is of the essence.” (Our emphasis)

Straightforward, you might have thought? Not necessarily. Readie’s first argument was that the clause didn’t protect a seller who delivered the wrong goods, rather than goods that were correct but bad: after all, if it did, they said, it would mean that a seller who delivered nothing at all, or something obviously irrelevant such as sand, would still have the right to be paid after submitting its invoice. This point Martin Spencer J adroitly — and we on the blog think rightly — got rid of by saying that the right to be paid would be implicitly conditional on a bona fide purported delivery.

The next argument was that Clause 4.1 ousted counterclaims and set-offs but not Readie’s would-be right to abatement of the price. There was authority that some clauses would indeed be interpreted that way. But his Lordship remained unconvinced that this one was of that type: it was comprehensive in its terms, and there was no reason not to interpret it in an accordingly wide way, as requiring the buyer to pay in full, no questions asked, and argue the toss later. This again seems, if we may say so, highly sensible. Hardly any businesspeople know the difference between a set-off and a right to abatement; indeed, one suspects the proportion of practising lawyers is also embarrassingly low. However attractive it might seem to a law professor with time on their hands, one should not lightly assume a clause is meant to invoke a technical legal distinction which lawyers and laypeople alike are largely unfamiliar with.

Lastly, it being accepted that because of a retention of title clause s.49(1) of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 did not give Geo a right to the price on the basis that property had passed, Readie argued that s.49(2), allowing a claim for payment on a day certain irrespective of delivery, did not apply either. The right to payment, they said, was dependent on delivery, or at least purported delivery: how could payment then be due “irrespective of delivery”? The answer, again we suggest correct, was that “irrespective of delivery” means simply “not fixed at the time of delivery”, thus ousting the presumption of cash on delivery reflected in s.28.

To this latter question there might have been an easier answer, save for a curious concession on Geo’s part that they could not succeed in a claim for the price unless they were within either s.49(1) or s.49(2). Since The Res Cogitans [2016] AC 1034 it has been clear that freedom of contract exists as to the time and circumstances when payment becomes due, whether or not either limb of s.49 is satisfied. It must have been at least arguable that Clause 4.1 simply provided its own solution and needed to be applied in its own terms without any reference to s.49 at all. Another note, perhaps, for your for the file on the minutiae of bringing claims for summary judgment for goods supplied.