Contract law enthusiasts might take heart from today’s long-awaited decision of the High Court of Australia on penalties, Paciocco v ANZ Group Ltd  HCA 28. Essentially four of their Honours (French CJ, Kiefel, Keane and Nettle JJ) say things consistent with Cavendish Square Holding BV v Talal El Makdessi  UKSC 67, decided last November in the UKSC and noted here on this blog: namely, that the test for a penalty is now whether the agreed sum fulfils some legitimate interest in the victim in obtaining performance. There is agreement to differ on another point (ie whether the penalties doctrine goes beyond breach of contract — the Aussies say it does, we say it doesn’t): but that issue wasn’t raised in Paciocco, and in mentioning it French CJ was merely pointing out that the common law isn’t necessarily one-size-fits-all. This point aside, London and Canberra are singing from a broadly similar hymn-sheet.
The question at stake was late payment fees on credit card accounts — in this case a straight charge of $20. By a majority (Nettle J dissenting) it was held not penal. Advantage banks.
Demurrage is a provision for liquidated damages for breach of the charterer’s obligation to load or discharge the vessel within the agreed laytime. Demurrage provisions are also to be found in carriage contracts in respect of detention of containers supplied by the carrier. In MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. v. Cottonex Anstalt  EWHC 283 (Comm), we have the first case considering container demurrage, which is of general interest in its treatment of the carrier’s right to keep a repudiated contract alive and continue claiming demurrage.
In the summer of 2011 the carrier made several contracts with the shipper to carry containers of raw cotton by sea from Middle East ports to Chittagong in Bangladesh. However, the goods were never collected and the containers still remain in a yard in the port at Chittagong and the customs authorities have at all material times refused to allow the containers to be released.
The carrier claimed demurrage from the shipper pursuant to cl.14.8 of the bill of lading which provided for a period of free time for the use of containers and providing that the responsibility of the “Merchant”, defined as including the shipper, was “to return to a place nominated by the Carrier the Container and other equipment before or at the end of the free time allowed at the Port of Discharge or the Place of Delivery”. Demurrage on a daily basis was to be payable by the Merchant thereafter in accordance with the carrier’s tariff. As at 1 January 2015 the total demurrage claimed, from the expiry of free time in 2011, exceeded US$1m.
Leggatt J held that the shipper was liable to pay demurrage under cl. 14 (8) and that there was no scope for reducing the amount payable for this breach on the grounds that the carrier had not taken reasonable steps to mitigate its loss. A liquidated damages clause made proof of the claimant’s actual loss unnecessary and irrelevant.
However, demurrage would not run forever. On 27 September 2011 the shipper had committed a repudiatory breach of the contracts of carriage by sending an email to the carrier in which it indicated that there was no realistic prospect of it being to arrange for any of the containers being collected. The question now arose as to whether the carrier should accept the repudiation and sue for damages or whether it could keep the contract alive.
Following a repudiation, the innocent contracting party may decide to keep the contract alive, unless it has no legitimate interest in doing so which will be the case when: (a) damages are an adequate remedy and; (b) maintaining the contract would be “wholly unreasonable”. Here, the carrier had no legitimate interest in maintaining the contract of carriage. It was restricted to a claim for damages, which would be subject to the mitigation principle. If the containers were in its possession it could mitigate by unpacking them. If, as was the case here, the containers were not in its possession, it could mitigate by buying replacements. Had cl. 14 (8) purported to give the carrier an unfettered right to ignore the shipper’s repudiation and carry on claiming demurrage indefinitely, the clause would have been treated as penal and would be unenforceable.