MUR Shipping BV v RTI Ltd  EWHC 467 (Comm) raised 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, which has now come before the Court of Appeal  EWCA Civ 1406.
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”. Charterers offered to make the payment in euros and to bear the cost of converting those euros into dollars which the tribunal described as a “completely realistic alternative” to the payment obligation in the COA, which was to pay in US dollars.
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 matter went to arbitration and the Tribunal in its award held that Mur could not rely on the force majeure clause because the offer of payment in euros meant that the ‘event or state of affairs’ could have been ‘overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected’. The Tribunal found that RTI was therefore entitled to damages for MUR’s refusal to nominate vessels to load the relevant cargoes.
On an appeal under s69 of the Arbitration Act 1996 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. He held that the contract required payment in US dollars and that “a party is not required, by the exercise of reasonable endeavours, to accept non-contractual performance in order to circumvent the effect of a force majeure or similar clause”, referencing the decision in Bulman v Fenwick & Co  1 QB 179. The case involved a voyage charter where the charterer could discharge the cargo of coal at one of certain named places on the Thames. The charterer nominated the Regents Canal which subsequently became subject to a strike. The charterer resisted a demurrage claim on the grounds of a strike exception. Owners claimed charterers should have ordered discharge at one of the other possible places on the Thames. It was held that the charterer was entitled to send the vessel to the Regent’s Canal, with no limitation express or implied on its choice of discharge place and that the delay fell within the strike exception clause.
The Court of Appeal has now, in a majority decision  EWCA Civ 1406, reversed the decision at first instance. The Court of Appeal focussed on the word ‘overcome’ in cl 36.3.(d). Males LJ, giving the principal judgment of the majority, held that the real question was whether acceptance of RTI’s proposal to pay freight in euros and to bear the cost of converting those euros into dollars would overcome the state of affairs caused by the imposition of sanctions on Rusal. Could that state of affairs only be overcome if RTI found a way to make timely payments of freight in US dollars, in strict accordance with the terms of the contract? The answer was ‘no’.
Clause 36 should be applied in a common sense way which achieves the purpose underlying the parties’ obligations –that MUR should receive the right quantity of US dollars in its bank account at the right time. RTI were able and willing to pay in euros and to bear any additional costs or exchange rate losses in converting the euros to US dollars. Accepting their proposal would have achieved precisely the same result as performance of the contractual obligation to pay in US dollars. The word “overcome” did not necessarily mean that the contract must be performed in strict accordance with its terms, given that the arbitrators’ conclusion in their award that the force majeure could have been “overcome by reasonable endeavours from the Party affected” was a finding of fact, or at any rate of mixed fact and law, with which the court should not interfere. The cases of Bulman v Fenwick and the Vancouver Strikes case referred to by Jacobs J were not relevant as neither case involved a force majeure provision such as cl.36 (d).
Arnold LJ dissenting found that if the parties to the contract of affreightment intended clause 36.3(d) to extend to a requirement to accept non-contractual performance, clear express words were required and there were none. He gave the example of a contract of carriage requiring discharge at port A which was strike bound. Clause 36 would not require acceptance of an offer by the other party to divert to port B which would involve no detriment to the party invoking the clause because the goods were required at a place equidistant to the two ports. The party invoking the clause is entitled to insist on contractual performance by the other.
The decision is very much tied to the wording of the particular force majeure clause in question and to the fact that the offer to pay the dollar equivalent in euros would have involved no detriment to owners. In the absence of such a clause a party would still be entitled to insist on contractual performance, as in Bulman v Fenwick.