Ultra vires or ineffective: a no-nonsense approach to contractual effectiveness

A short technical point of interest especially to those dealing with foreign state or semi-state entities arises out of a decision of Andrew Baker J a week ago in Exportadora De Sal SA De CV v Corretaje Maritimo Sud-Americano Inc [2018] EWHC 224 (Comm).

The power of a Ruritanian state corporate entity  to conclude a contract is governed by the law of the place of incorporation, i.e. Ruritania. The validity of the contract, and whether anything has happened which has the effect of preventing the parties being liable, or discharging an existing duty, is controlled by the governing law of the contract: if there’s an English law and jurisdiction clause, this means English law, to the exclusion of Ruritanian. But where is the boundary between the two?

A Mexican 51/49 state/private entity contracted for the building of a self-unloading salt barge (don’t say you don’t learn about interesting gadgets on Maricom) for about $27 million. The contract specified English law and London arbitration. The Mexican entity broke its contract, and following arbitration went down for about $7 million.  However the builders, when they tried to enforce the award, encountered a plea that the Mexican entity concerned had had no power under Mexican law to contract for the barge except through a specified tender process; that this hadn’t happened, that there had indeed been a Mexican administrative decision to cancel the contract on that basis, and that this nullified not only the contract but any submission to the arbitral process contained within it.

Andrew Baker J gave the buyers short shrift for a number of reasons we need not go into here. As regards the no-power argument, however, he made the important point that it was a non-starter. Although possibly dressed up as an ultra vires point, it was really nothing of the sort: viewed as a matter of substance it was a question of substantive validity. Substantive validity being governed by English law, the fact that under Mexican law the contract had been declared entirely ineffective was simply beside the point. As his Lordship observed, this decision was merely a mirror-image of the earlier Haugesund Kommune et al. v Depfa ACS Bank [2012] QB 549, where an ostensibly validity-orirnted rule had been held on a proper construction actually to go to the vires of a contracting party. But  the Exportadora de Sal case is none the less a useful weapon in the armoury of an English international commercial lawyer faced with an impressive-sounding plea that an apparently English contract was ultra vires under the laws of Backofbeyondia.

 

 

Is  a ‘Waiting for orders’ claim a demurrage claim?

 

 

The answer to this question matters because of the documents required under a time bar clause for “demurrage claims”.

In The Ocean Neptune [2018] EWHC 163 (Comm) the vessel was chartered for a voyage from Taiwan to three Australian discharge ports on ExxonMobil VOY2005 form, and the Lukoil International Trading and Supply Company Exxonvoy 2005 clauses dated 30.05.2006 (“the LITASCO Clauses”). Clause 2 of the Litasco clauses provided a requirement for demurrage claims to be provided with supporting documentation within 90 days of completion of final discharge, with a similar provision for other claims but with a time limit of 120 days. In addition cl. 2(b) specified the types of documentation that had to be required for a demurrage claim.  Clause 4 of the Litasco clauses was a ‘waiting for orders’ clause which provided “If charterers require vessel to interrupt her voyage awaiting at anchorage further orders, such delay to be for charterers’ account and shall count as laytime or demurrage, if vessel on demurrage. Drifting clause shall apply if the ship drifts.”

At Gladstone, the first discharge port, the vessel berthed but then shifted back to the anchorage, remaining there for more than a month until charterers ordered the vessel to sail to Botany Bay.  The reason for the delay at Gladstone was that the receivers, Caltex, refused to take delivery of the cargo on the grounds that it was alleged to be contaminated/off specification. Owners initially presented this delay claim as a demurrage claim, but then reformulated it as a claim under cl. 4. The Tribunal held the Owners’ demurrage claims were barred because they failed to include a statement of facts for the loading port and the discharging ports, countersigned by the terminal, or if it was impossible to obtain such a countersignature, a letter of protest from the Master, as required by cl. 2(b). However, the Tribunal found that cl.2(b) did not apply to the claim for delay under cl.4. Charterers appealed against the finding.

Popplewell J allowed the appeal. The claim under clause 4 was a demurrage claim. Demurrage was defined by clause 13(d) of the ExxonMobil VOY2005 form which provided that demurrage was to be paid for all time by which the allowed laytime “is exceeded by time taken for loading and discharging and for all other Charterer’s purposes and which, under this Charter, counts as laytime or as time on demurrage.”  Clause 4 provided that the delay caused by waiting at anchorage shall “count as” used laytime or demurrage. Demurrage was not limited to a claim where charterers had exceeded the allowed laytime by the time taken for loading and discharging. The waiting time was, therefore, time taken for Charterers’ purposes which under the charter counted as laytime or demurrage.  This was to be contrasted with other clauses in the charter which provided merely that compensation for delay caused by breach would be at the demurrage rate.

 

And the levy was dry. OPA Trust Fund levy expires.

 

 

The US Oil Pollution Act of 1990 set up a trust fund to take care of expenses beyond the costs that might be covered by the responsible party spilling any oil. This was funded by the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund levy of 9cts per barrel. The levy expired on 31 December 2017 and has not been renewed. There is currently about $5.7 billion in the fund.

Scope of OPA expanded. The US Foreign Spill Protection Act 2017.

 

On 12 December 2017 President Donald Trump signed into law the Foreign Spill Protection Act of 2017. This  amends the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to make foreign facilities that are located offshore and outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) liable for removal costs and damages that result from oil spills that reach (or threaten to reach) U.S. navigable waters, adjoining shorelines, or the EEZ. Specifically, the following parties may be held liable: (1) the owners or operators of the foreign facilities, including facilities located in, on, or under any land within foreign countries; and (2) the holders of a right of use and easement granted under applicable foreign law for the area in which the facility is located. The Act extends to abandoned foreign facilities. The Act also expands the definition of  an “offshore facility” under the Clean Water Act so as to cover facilities seaward of the US EEZ. The expansion applies to the  subsections of s.311 of the Clean Water Act relating: to administrative and civil penalties for spills of oil and/or other hazardous substances; federal removal authority; civil enforcement ; the savings clause for existing state, local and federal law.

Maritime or non-maritime? The status of oilfield contracts in Louisiana

 

 

On 8 January 2018 the Fifth Circuit  en banc (In re Larry Doiron, Inc., http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1885307.html (5th Cir. Jan. 8, 2018 No. 16-30217)) reworked the test for determining whether oilfield contracts are maritime or non-maritime in nature. Under maritime law knock for knock indemnity clauses in oil field service contracts are valid, but under anti-indemnity statutes in some states, such as Louisiana and Texas, they are invalid.

 

The case involved flowback operations performed in state waters on a fixed platform. The master service contract for the flowback work did not call for any vessel involvement. However, during the job the flowback contractor, STS, found a crane was needed to manipulate some of the flowback equipment. A tug and barge were needed to get the crane to the platform and the platform owner had to charter in vessels to allow the flowback contractor to do its work. required the platform owner (Apache) to subcontract with Larry Doiron Inc to charter in the necessary vessels to allow STS to do its work under the MSC.   During the ensuing operations, an STS technician was injured, and LDI sought indemnity from STS under the terms of the Apache-STS MSC (which provided for indemnity from STS to Apache and any of Apache’s subcontractors).

 

The Fifth Circuit set out a new two part test to determine whether or not the contract is maritime in nature. First, is the contract one to provide services to facilitate the drilling or production of oil and gas on navigable waters? Second, if the answer to the above question is “yes,” does the contract provide or do the parties expect that a vessel will play a substantial role in the completion of the contract? If so, the contract is maritime in nature.

 

Applying this new test to this case, the oral work order called for STS to perform downhole work on a gas well that had access only from a platform. After the STS crew began work down hole, the crew encountered an unexpected problem that required a vessel and a crane to lift equipment needed to resolve this problem. The use of the vessel to lift the equipment was an insubstantial part of the job and not work the parties expected to be performed. Therefore, the contract was non maritime and controlled by Louisiana law which barred the indemnity under Louisiana Oilfield Indemnity Act.

Repudiation claims and voyage charter timebar clause

 

Demurrage time bar clauses are a commonplace in tanker charters. They require owners to submit their claim with supporting documentation within a specified period of time after completion of discharge, failing which the claim is extinguished. Some clauses extend this regime to all claims by owners against charterers. However, what happens to the time bar when the cargo is never discharged, because charterers have repudiated the charter and have never loaded a cargo? The Tribunal in London Arbitration 3/18 has found that the clause which discharged the charterer from all liability if appropriate documentation is not provided “within 90 days after completion of discharge at last discharging port” did not affect owners’ load port demurrage claim, nor their  cancellation claim. The clause could not operate effectively in circumstances where the contemplated voyage was not performed at all. If charterers had wanted the clause to operate in these circumstances, they needed to provide clearly for this eventuality, as is the case with the Hague/Hague-Visby Rules which discharge an owner from liability if suit was not brought within one year of the delivery of the goods or of the “date when they should have been delivered”. A similar finding was made by Nigel Teare QC, as he then was, in The Bow Cedar,[2005] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 275.

International insolvency outside the EU: contract under English law and we’ll see you right.

Before the twenty-first century there was a clear and undoubted rule in international insolvency known as the Gibbs rule (Antony Gibbs & Sons v La Société Industrielle et Commerciale des Métaux (1890) LR 25 QBD 399). Whatever recognition or other co-operation we might be prepared to grant foreign insolvency proceedings, if an obligation was governed by English law and otherwise valid, its validity could not be affected by any act of foreign courts or authorities proceeding under their own insolvency law.

There is no doubt that this is no longer the case for EU insolvencies: the EU Insolvency Regulations of 2000 and more recently 2015 have clearly put paid to any such exceptionalism. But what of non-EU insolvencies? Since 2006 there has been some question whether the simple Gibbs rule have been affected by the UNCITRAL-based CBIR (Cross-Border Insolvency Rules), which now give the English courts considerable scope to replicate in England the effects of a foreign insolvency proceeding in a debtor’s own COMI (centre of main interests, essentially where its business was run from). Progressive and academic opinion (the latter as usual generally aping the former) consistently suggested that the answer ought to be Yes, on the basis that modified universalism in insolvency needed to become more global and less narrowly jurisdictional.

Today, however, Hildyard J, in a careful judgment in Bakhshiyeva v Sberbank of Russia & Ors [2018] EWHC 59 (Ch), a case about the dry subject of paper issued by a Baku bank, gave the answer No. The bank, OJSC, with connections to the Azeri state, was highly insolvent. It went into Chapter 11-style reconstruction in Azerbaijan, successfully applying to have the proceeding recognised in the UK under the CBIR. A vote of an overwhelming number of creditors, valid under Azeri law, agreed a complex debt-for-government-bonds-and-new-lower-debt arrangement under which OJSC would then continue trading. Two financial institutions, one English (Templeton) and one Russian (Sberbank), holding English-law-governed debt issued by OJSC, held out. They took no part in the vote, though as a matter of Azeri law they were bound by it.

The question was, could the English court prevent these two minority creditors bloody-mindedly enforcing their rights in full against the bank once the moratorium created by the Azeri proceedings was over? As stated above, the answer was No. Whatever one might think of the Gibbs rule, it was too solidly anchored to have been removed by the side-wind of the CBIR. Nor should it be bypassed by, for example, admitting that the debt still existed but then reducing it to something like the grin on the Cheshire cat by preventing its enforcement against the assets of the debtor.

There is much to be said for Hildyard J’s solution, both on grounds of legal certainty and also because Parliament has occasionally stepped in in other areas, but not this one, to prevent abuse of international creditors’ rights (notably, in enforcing statutory debt relief for poor countries against vulture funds and the like).

It may, moreover, be important not only for bondholders — who will obviously be opening discreet magnums of champagne this evening — but for other creditors, including maritime ones. Charter claimants and bunker suppliers whose rights are governed by English law will now, it seems, be able to watch smugly from the sidelines while shipping companies go into reconstruction, waiting for the proceedings to end before pouncing, catlike, on the very same companies, seizing their London accounts and arresting their vessels for the full amount of their claim as soon as they venture far from home. Commerce red in tooth and claw, you might say: but then that’s how it’s always been in shipping.

 

BARECON 2017 out now.

 

In December 2017 BIMCO published the new version of its bareboat charter form, BARECON. The main changes to its predecessor, BARECON 2001 are:

 

  • The shipowner now owes an absolute obligation to deliver the vessel in a seaworthy condition, as opposed to being obliged to exercise due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy on delivery. If the charterer has inspected the vessel before delivery, the owner must deliver the vessel to the charterer in the same condition, fair wear and tear excepted. (Cl 3(a)).

 

  • An option to extend the charter period at a pre-agreed rate is now included (cl.2).

 

 

  • Charterer and owner are given the right to place representatives on board before delivery and redelivery (cl.6) and have the option to arrange for an underwater inspection of hull, rudder and propeller in the condition survey on delivery and redelivery (cl.7).

 

  • Charterers remain liable for undertaking any structural changes mandated by compulsory legislation but two options are provided for allocating their costs. The default position is that all costs are for charterer’s account. The second option is to provide a pre-determined formula for the apportionment of the costs.(Cl 13(b).

 

  • The words ‘in respect of which time shall be of the essence’ have been removed from the provision relating to payment of hire and this now provides a prescribed grace period of three banking days (cl.15).

 

 

  • The insurance provisions in cl. 17 have been amended so as to take account of the decision in The Ocean Victory, so as to provide that payment of insurance to cover the owners loss does not prevent the owners or their insurers from claiming against the charterer, nor the owner or the charterer, or their insurers, from claiming against third parties. Cl.19(a) provides that the bareboat charterers are to become liable to damages if the vessel becomes a total loss. Clause 17 provides two for taking out insurance. First, charterers to insure for Hull and Machinery, war, and P&I risks. Second, owners to insure for Hull and Machinery and war risks, charterers to insure against P&I risks.

 

  • The charter now contains anti-corruption (cl.28) and sanctions clauses (cl.29) based on the existing BIMCO clauses, amended for a bareboat charter context.

 

 

  • The owner’s right to withdraw is now described as a right to terminate, and the war risk clause has been deleted from the termination provisions (cl.31).

 

  • The optional provisions in relation to newbuildings in Part III now include a right on the part of charterers to request a change order to the vessel’s specifications in accordance with the terms of the building contract, with charterers bearing any additional costs, and the termination provisions are amended so that the owner has the right to terminate the charter in the event it becomes entitled to cancel the building contract.

 

 

Demurrage claim against seller. Don’t blame your buyer if you don’t pay freight due under your charter.

 

London Arbitration 2/18 give us an interesting issue on causation arising out of two related contracts, a cfr sale contract, and the charterparty made by the seller. The cfr sale contract required buyers to pay charterparty freight to sellers as soon as possible after signing bills of lading; which they failed to do. The shipowners refused to release the ‘freight prepaid’ bill of lading until freight had been paid. The consequent delay resulted in the seller incurring a liability for demurrage at the discharge port under their charterparty. The tribunal held that the sellers were not entitled to an indemnity from the buyers in respect of their demurrage liability. Despite the provisions of the sale contract, the primary obligation to pay to the owners the charterparty freight remained with the sellers, as charterers of the vessel.  The sellers decided not to pay themselves the freight due to the owners and this broke any chain of causation there might have been between the buyers’ breach and the demurrage incurred by sellers under the charter. Alternatively, the sellers had failed to mitigate the damages to which the buyers’ breach exposed them and thereby incurred a liability for demurrage that could have been otherwise avoided.