Disponent owners’ liens on cargo

Can disponent owners lien cargo for sums due under their sub-charter? Dicta in The Clipper Monarch [2015] EWHC 2584 (Comm); [2016] 1 Lloyds’ Law Rep 1, suggests that they can. The sub-charterers, Silver Rock, had failed to pay freight, deadfreight, and demurrage to disponent owners, CCS, and the vessel waited outside Chinese territorial waters. CCS obtained and order to sell the cargo under CPR Part 25.1(1)(c)(v), which provided for the gross proceeds of sale to be held by the claimant’s solicitors to the order of the court and “treated as if subject to the same rights (if any) as [CCS] had in respect of the goods prior to their sale”.

The cargo had been purchased by Silver Rock from Max Coal and sold on to Grupo Minero, the original consignee. Silver Rock found a new purchaser and the vessel berthed to discharge the cargo. The cargo was sold and its proceeds held by CCS’s solicitors pursuant to the High Court’s order. CCS obtained arbitration awards against Silver Rock for sums due under the voyage charter, and against Grupo Minero, claiming as assignee of the head owner’s right to claim an almost identical amount as carrier under the bill of lading. The awards were converted into judgements. His Honour Judge Waksman QC held that the sale proceeds representing the cargo clearly belonged to one of the two judgment debtors and CCS was entitled to the monies as judgment creditor against whichever of them was the appropriate owner.

His Honour Judge Waksman QC then considered, obiter, a second ground on which CCS would be entitled to the proceeds of the sale – by way of its rights on a lien on the cargo which arose prior to the sale. If the cargo was owned prior to sale by Grupo Minero, CCS relied on the voyage charter “lien” clause as incorporated into the bills of lading, CCS having taken an assignment of the carrier’s rights. If the cargo was owned by Silver Rock, CCS relied on the voyage charter “lien” clause as giving it a right with similar effect to a possessory lien, namely a right to procure that the cargo be withheld from Silver Rock by directing the employment of the vessel in its capacity as time charterer.

This second ground assumes that the time charterer has the right, under the employment clause, to direct the shipowner to lien the cargo by not unloading it. Such an order would only be lawful if the shipowner had the right to lien the cargo under the bill of lading, as was the case in The Clipper Monarch. It is worth noting that a similar argument was rejected  in The Mathew [1990] 2 Lloyd’s Law. Rep 323 where Steyn J held that there was no implied term that the time charterers could direct the shipowners to lien cargo.

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