Admiralty jurisdiction over torts in the UK’s EEZ.

 

Virgin Media Ltd v Joseph Whelan T/A M and J Fish [2017] EWHC 1380 Admlty is an interesting decision on whether the Admiralty Court has jurisdiction in personam over a tort claim arising in the exclusive economic zone of the United Kingdom.  The claimant alleged that its fibre optic telecommunications cable, which ran across the Irish Sea between Dublin and Lytham St Annes, was damaged by a trawler at a location within the exclusive economic zone of the UK, but outside its territorial waters. The issue before the Admiralty Court was whether the courts of England and Wales had jurisdiction under the 2012 Recast Judgments Regulation. Under art.4 of the Regulation the defendant should be sued in the place of its domicile, the Republic of Ireland, subject to any of the additional grounds of jurisdiction provided for in the Regulation. Here the relevant one was contained in art 7(2) which provides that “A person domiciled in a Member State may be sued in another Member State in matters relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict in the courts for the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur”.

The Admiralty Registrar held that the Admiralty Court had no greater rights over a collision with a fixed structure than it would in respect of any collision between ships which would be none unless the action is brought in rem or falls within one of the exceptions in s.22 of the Senior Courts Act 1981. Any extension of jurisdiction would have to be established by reference to an international convention or treaty. The relevant treaty would be the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Article 60(2) of UNCLOS provides that the coastal state has exclusive jurisdiction over artificial islands, installations and structures within its EEZ, and this formed the basis for Burton J’s decision in Conocophillips (UK) Ltd v Partnereederei MS Jork [2010] EWHC 1214 (Comm) that the Commercial Court had jurisdiction over a negligence claim against a shipowner in connection with a collision between a vessel and an unmanned oil platform 40 miles off the coast of Norfolk. Where there is a collision between a vessel and a platform which is an effective prolongation of the territory of the United Kingdom, the Court would have jurisdiction. The concept of ‘place’ in the predecessor provision to art 7(2) in the 2001 Judgments Regulation was limited to matters addressed in UNCLOS art. 60.

In contrast, art.58(1) provided that all States, and not just the Coastal State had the freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines within their EEZ, but did not provide for the coastal state to have jurisdiction. Article 56 of UNCLOS gives an English court jurisdiction over matters with respect to fishing, but did not provide that the coastal state may assume jurisdiction with regard to civil disputes arising out of fishing. Accordingly, the Admiralty Court was not a court for the place where the harmful event occurred under art 7(2) and the Court declared it had no jurisdiction over the claim. The appropriate jurisdiction was in the Courts of the Republic of Ireland under art. 4 of the Recast Regulation.

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