Life as a shipowner is seldom easy. In addition to the commercial challenges that owners face on a daily basis, time needs to be given to reading law reports to find themselves embroiled in the legal system.
This is particularly true where tough economic conditions demand strict enforcement of legal rights. In this article we consider three recent decisions of the English courts to which owners may wish to pay particular attention.
LIENS ON FREIGHT
Where charterers default on their obligations to pay hire, liens on sub-hires and freights are often an important and valuable right that owners can utilise to secure much needed income to complete a voyage. The decision in the “Bulk Chile” (2013) is a welcome endorsement of the rights that owners possess, and the willingness of the courts to enforce such rights. The “Bulk Chile” was time chartered by her owners to Korea Line who in turn trip time chartered the vessel to sub-charterers, who then voyage chartered the vessel to the shippers of the cargo. The vessel loaded a cargo of steel. Bills of lading were issued which stated that freight was payable as per the voyage charter. The bills were also marked “freight prepaid”, although no freight had in fact been prepaid.
Korea Line defaulted in the payment of hire and owners issued a notice of lien under the time charter to both the sub- and voyage-charterers requiring them to pay any hire and freights due under the charters, bills of lading or other con-tracts of carriage. In addition owners also required the shippers (who were also the voyage charterers) to pay the freight due under any bills of lading direct to owners.
Despite the notices that had been given the voyage charterers paid the bill of lading freight to the sub-charterers claiming that they were required to do so under the terms of the voyage charter. Owners demanded that the voyage-charterers, as shippers, pay to them the freight due under the bill of lading. The High Court upheld this right and stated that owners were entitled to redirect to
themselves the payment of freight due under the bills of lading, providing that owners’ notice of redirection had been given to the shippers before the freight was paid to the sub-charterers under the voyage charter. The result therefore was that the voyage-charterers were forced to pay the freight twice.
The shippers appealed but the Court of Appeal upheld owners’ entitlement to receive the freight under the bills of lading. The court explained that the sub-charterer was to be regarded as the agent of the owner and received the freight due on owners’ behalf. Thus, owners were entitled at any time to revoke the instruction to pay freight to an agent and, provided the notice was issued
before the payment was made, the shipper was obliged to make payment directly to the owners.
Redirecting the payment of freight under a bill of lading can be a simple means whereby owners can secure for themselves any freight that is outstanding. This, however is one of many weapons that owners can deploy where charterers default. Ensuring that there are effective lien clauses in the time charter in respect of both sub-hires and sub-freights is also important – as is taking steps to ensure that, where necessary, such lien rights are registered against the charterers so that they can be effectively exercised in the event of a default brought about by the insolvency of the charterers.
NET LOSS OF TIME
The next case is both interesting and potentially important for owners. It concerns the proper construction of the net loss of time off-hire clause in clause 15 of the NYPE charter. Following the decision in the “Berge Sund” (1993) the generally held view was that in determining whether there had been a net loss of time under clause 15, consideration had to be given to the services immediately required of the vessel. The decision by the High Court in the “Athena” (2012)
suggests that this may no longer be the correct approach, since the court adopted a much broader interpretation to the question as to what ‘net time’ had been lost by reason of the vessel not performing the services required by charterers as a result of an off-hire event.
In the “Athena” the vessel was delayed outside Benghazi until problems with the bills of lading were resolved. Charterers maintained that owners’ decision not to allow the vessel to proceed to the discharge port was an off-hire event of under clause 15 of the NYPE charter. This was because the vessel could not perform the services immediately required, which was to proceed to the discharge port. However it was clear that had the vessel proceeded into the discharge port she would not have been permitted to berth until such time as the bill of lading issue had been resolved. The court held that in determining whether there had been any loss of time it was necessary to look at what was the overall causal effect of the vessel not proceeding to the discharge port when ordered to do so. In the case of the “Athena” it was held that there was no loss of time because even if the vessel had proceeded earlier she would not have discharged her cargo any sooner than she did.
This decision gives much greater commercial weight to the term “net loss of time” and avoids owners being unfairly penalised when a vessel cannot immediately perform the chartered services at a time when the interruption in the performance has no material impact on the overall time taken to perform the services required under the charter. The decision is however inconsistent with the reasoning in the “Berge Sund” decision and for that reason it is perhaps not surprising that the case has been referred to the Court of Appeal for further consideration.
TOTAL LOSS MAY NOT END THE CHARTER
In most cases where a vessel is a constructive total loss owners will assume that the loss of the ship will bring to an end any charter under which the vessel is performing. Following the decision in the “Kyla” (2012) such an assumption may not always be correct.
The “Kyla” was chartered for 12 to 15 months and was involved in a collision ten weeks into the charter. The collision occurred due to no fault on the part of the owner but the charter required that the vessel be insured for a fixed value through-out the period of the charter. Following the collision the owners abandoned the vessel to her underwriters as a constructive total loss on the
grounds that the cost of repairs exceeded her sound value at the date of the casualty.
Underwriters settled the claim and the owners then alleged that the charter had been frustrated on the grounds that the cost of repair exceeded the market value of the vessel. The charterer asserted that, since the charter provided that the insured value was a fixed amount, the charter was only frustrated if the costs of repair exceeded the insured value of the vessel. Thus, the owner was obliged to repair notwithstanding that the vessel was for insurance purposes a
constructive total loss.
The arbitrator agreed with the owners but the court reversed the decision. The judge held that since the owners had war-ranted the insured value of the vessel, they had assumed the risk under the charter to repair the vessel where the costs of repair were within the insured value. By electing not to repair the vessel owners had in a sense frustrated the charter by their own decision.
It remains to be seen whether the court would arrive at a similar decision wherethe insured value is not fixed in the charter. However until such time as the position is clarified owners would be advised to ensure that there is an express clause in the charter stating that where for insurance purposes the vessel is an actual or constructive total loss this will bring the charter to an end.
Over the last 12 months the English courts and arbitrators have issued some interesting and important decisions for the maritime community. In this article we have considered three of those decisions. Whilst reading law reports is unlikely to be considered to be an enjoyable way to spend time for shipowners, the benefits gained from doing so may be considerable.