Coincidentally Collateral or Causally Connected? Dancing around Post-Breach Benefits.

The New Flamenco (Globalia Business Travel SAU v Fulton Shipping Inc) [2017] UKSC 43

 SIMON RAINEY Q.C.

A Short Question of Fact?

An owner of an elderly cruise ship lets her on time charter, extended by two years. The charterer redelivers in 2007 the vessel two years early, in repudiatory breach of the charter. The owner accepts the breach and terminates the charter. The time charter market for an old lady like the ‘New Flamenco’ is non-existent. The owner decides to sell the vessel rather than to continue to trade her. The arbitrator finds variously “it would not have been possible for the Owners to conclude an alternative substitute two year time charterparty. The need to sell the vessel was clearly caused by the breach” and “in this case it was clear that the necessity for the sale had been brought about by the refusal to perform the two year extension”.

When the owner sells the vessel he (perhaps surprisingly) finds a buyer for her willing to pay US$23.7 million. Had the charterer performed the charterparty, the vessel would have been worth much less at the end of the two years in 2009: had the owner wanted to sell her then, it would have received only in the region of US$ 7 million.

Should the owner have to give credit to the charterer for the difference in value (23.7 – 7) against its claim for damages for loss of profit over the two years (based on the difference between the charter rate and spot and other employment)?

The dance (a minuet, rather than a flamenco perhaps) then began. The arbitrator held that the owner did have to give credit, in the light of his findings of fact. Popplewell J held that it did not. A strong Court of Appeal was of the same view as the arbitrator. A strong Supreme Court this week unanimously rejected that view and restored Popplewell J’s approach, holding that to oblige the owner to give credit was wrong in principle and wrong on the facts as found by the arbitrator.

The short answer of the Supreme Court (expressed succinctly in six paragraphs) was that while the breach and early redelivery was the occasion or ‘trigger’ for the owner’s sale of the vessel, it was not the legal cause of the sale taking place nor could the sale sensibly be described as a step taken by the owner in mitigating the loss of charter earnings over the two years.

The decision is important in focussing on what needs to be shown in terms of legal causation in the breach and mitigation contexts, rather than pointing simply at acts which are factually connected. It is also noteworthy in the way it demonstrates the tension on a section 69 Arbitration Act 1996 appeal between “findings of fact” and findings, which while expressed as ones of fact, are on proper analysis ones of law.

The To-and-fro of the Decisions Below

At first instance, Popplewell J had distilled no fewer than eleven principles after an extensive review of the cases: see [2014] EWHC 1547 (Comm) at [64]. Of these perhaps the most important are the first four, which stressed that for a benefit to be taken into account, the critical test was one of legal causation linking the reception or creation of the benefit with the breach, so that the breach is the actual legal cause of the benefit being conferred. The Judge regarded mitigation as governed by the same principles. As his fifth to eighth principles, he therefore analysed how the requirement of legal causation applies to mitigation, pointing out “The fact that a mitigating step, by way of action or inaction, may be a reasonable and sensible business decision with a view to reducing the impact of the breach, does not of itself render it one which is sufficiently caused by the breach. A step taken by the innocent party which is a reasonable response to the breach and designed to reduce losses caused thereby may be triggered by a breach but not legally caused by the breach” (citing The Elena d’Amico [1980] 1 Ll. Rep 75.)

The Judge disposed of the case on the basis that the difference in value of the vessel between the date of the sale and the date of the expiry of the two years had nothing to do with the breach: it was simply caused by the drop in the market which would have occurred anyway. Similarly, the effect of fluctuating market values for the capital value of the vessel was only produced by a decision to sell the vessel, which decision the owner could take and could have taken at any time, irrespective of the breach. If the owner could not be criticised if it had decided not to sell the vessel but chose to sit tight for two years, on the basis of a failure to mitigate, how could the sale which it chose to make be treated as “mitigation” caused by the breach? If it could not, then the benefit was not a benefit accruing from mitigation but was entirely collateral.

The Court of Appeal (Longmore, Christopher Clarke, Sales LJJ) approached the matter from a different standpoint. Its starting point was that “It is notoriously difficult to lay down principles of law in the realm of mitigation of loss particularly when it is said that a benefit received by a claimant is to be brought into account as avoiding the loss. The judge is to be commended for having tried to do so but his use of the word “indicative” is itself indicative that hard and fast principles are difficult to enunciate. In appeals from an arbitrator’s award a court has to be particularly respectful of the boundaries between fact and law which the parties, by their choice of tribunal, have created.” [20]

Thereafter, the Court of Appeal based itself on the arbitrator’s decision of the factual connection between the owner’s decision to sell the vessel as being a sufficient legal connection: “Viscount Haldane’s formulation in British Westinghouse that the benefit must ‘arise from the consequences of the breach’ remains, in my view, entirely apposite. The issue of mitigation arises when the breach has had harmful consequences which the injured party has taken steps to ameliorate … the finding of fact made by the arbitrator was in effect that the benefit did arise from the consequences of the breach” (Christopher Clarke LJ at [47-48].

The Reasoning of the Supreme Court

In the Supreme Court, Lord Clarke (with whom Lords Neuberger, Mance, Sumption and Hodge agreed) preferred the reasoning of Popplewell J. While, perhaps unhelpfully, the Court did not comment expressly on the ‘eleven point’ guide set out by the Judge, the Court’s adoption of the reasoning and result arrived at by him is likely to mean that parties are likely to go back to them as a stepped approach to similar post-breach benefit problems.

The Court stressed, as had the Judge, that the question was simply one of legal causation: was the post-breach benefit in law to be regarded as having been caused by the breach or by mitigation of the loss caused by the breach? It rejected the argument that to be legally relevant the benefit had to be ‘of the same kind’ as the loss. This was too vague and arbitrary a test. Causation alone is key.

Lord Clarke dealt first with the argument that the difference in value (23.7 – 7) was to be treated as a benefit to the owner because it was “the benefit of having avoided a loss” by the owner selling the vessel in 2007 rather than on redelivery in 2009.

The obvious fallacy in this way of putting the argument might be thought to be that the owner did not need to sell the vessel at any time, including at the end of the charter term. It was simply a matter of the owner’s commercial decision-making as to how and when it ran its capital book.  As Lord Clarke explained, the owner could not have claimed from the charterer as damages for its breach if the vessel would have been worth more in 2009 than in 2007. Further, why take 2009 as the date of comparison simply because it represented the end of the charter period when the owner could have continued to trade? The owner might not have sold then. While a premature termination might lead an owner to sell earlier than it would otherwise have done, that had nothing to do with the charterer: it was “the disposal of an interest in the vessel which no part of the subject matter of the charterparty and had nothing to do with the owners” [32].

Lord Clarke dealt next with the mitigation argument based on the sale being an act taken by the owner to mitigate the loss of hire resulting from the breach.

Here, rather than analyse the matter as the Judge did, from the starting point that the owner could not be faulted for not mitigating if he had chosen not to sell the vessel, therefore any sale he chose to do was not ‘mitigation’ properly understood, Lord Clarke focussed on the precise nature of the loss. The loss was the loss of an income stream under the charter. Realising the capital value of the vessel did not and could not mitigate the loss of that income stream which, irrespective of the sale, remained lost [34]. While it might be thought that the Court here looked at the nature of the benefit and the nature of the loss (having deprecated just such a test), the nature of the loss and the benefit may be relevant in a causation enquiry. As Popplewell J, who had similarly rejected the ‘of the same kind’ argument, pointed out: “There is no requirement that the benefit must be of the same kind as the loss being claimed or mitigated … but such a difference in kind may be indicative that the benefit is not legally caused by the breach” [64(8)] (emphasis added; this proposition was expressly approved by the Supreme Court at [30]).

The Court pointed out that a sale of the vessel might be relevant to the compensatory principle if it could be shown, for example, that the owner would have sold the vessel during the two years had the charterer performed, because then that would on Golden Victory principles cut down the period of loss. But that had nothing to do with a collateral decision by an owner, post breach, to sell his vessel on a poor trading market.

Conclusions

The decision, and the procedural history, shows the difficulty that may lie in distinguishing between an act taken post-breach from which the claimant benefits and an act which is legally to be viewed as caused by that breach.

Where mitigation is concerned, if the claimant was not obliged to take such a post-breach step at all, then it seems clear that if he does take it, the defendant cannot seek to bring the benefits of so doing into account.

Coda: the Arbitral Context

It was strongly argued that, as causation was a question of fact, to be approached in a commonsense way, the decision of the arbitrator (extracts from which as reported are cited above) was one which was not open to challenge. Popplewell J. accepted that “whether a benefit is caused by a breach is a question of fact and degree which must be answered by considering all the relevant circumstances in order to form a commonsense overall judgment on the sufficiency of the causal nexus between breach and benefit” [64(9)] but considered that the arbitrator had simply gone wrong in treating things as sufficiently ‘caused’ when in law they could not be so regarded. Lord Clarke endorsed this approach at [24].

This gives rise to the apparent oddity of an arbitrator finding that the sale of the vessel was in consequence of and resulted from the breach and was a step taken by the owner to prevent loss from not being able to trade the vessel but this “not [being] legally sufficient to establish the necessary causative link between breach and benefit”.

The Court of Appeal decision in SPAR SHIPPING: Defining an owner’s remedies for non-payment of hire and resolving the Astra ‘condition’ debate

SIMON RAINEY QC

When the Court of Appeal handed down judgment late last year in Grand China Logistics Holding (Group) Co Ltd v Spar Shipping AS [2016] EWCA Civ 982, dismissing an appeal by unsuccessful time charterers, it determined the controversial question of whether a charterer’s failure to pay an instalment of hire punctually and in advance under a time charterparty is a breach of condition, entitling the shipowner to terminate the charter and claim damages for the loss of the balance of the charterparty.

The Court of Appeal (Sir Terence Etherton MR, Gross and Hamblen LJJ) unanimously held that the answer to that question is “no” and that, without more, such a failure merely entitles the shipowner to withdraw the vessel from service in accordance with the withdrawal clause.

The decision, for all practical purposes, finally resolves an issue which has attracted much market interest and generated conflicting observations from judges of the highest standing. It also reviews modern principles applicable to the proper classification of a contract term as a condition.

The leading judgment of Gross LJ also contains a valuable summary of the legal principles relating to renunciation in the context of late and non-payment of hire under time charterparties.

The Court of Appeal firmly rejected a novel argument by the appellant time charterers that the test for renunciation by time charterers in relation to defaults in payment of hire (whether by late or short payment) was applied too strictly (“unwarrantably severe”) and was out of step with the Court’s approach in other non-payment contexts under different types of contract, thereby amounting to unjustified “preferential treatment” for shipowners under time charters.

Simon Rainey QC, Nevil Phillips and Natalie Moore appeared for the successful respondent owners.

Headline Summary of the Decision

  1. The obligation to pay hire under a time charterparty is not a condition but an innominate or intermediate term. Flaux J’s decision to the contrary in The Astra [2013] EWHC 865 (Comm) was wrong.

  1. The obligation to pay hire promptly and in advance under a time charterparty lay at the heart of the contractual bargain represented by such a charterparty. Late and short payment would unilaterally convert a contract for payment in advance into a transaction for unsecured credit and without any provision for the payment of interest: such conduct went to the root of the contract, was renunciatory and entitled an owner to terminate.

  1. While therefore removing the availability of a condition from the shipowner’s arsenal of remedies for non-payment of hire, the Court of Appeal has roundly endorsed the critical importance of prompt and full payment of hire in advance, and has emphatically highlighted the risks which a time-charterer takes in making payment late or in missing payments, however much it protests that it wishes or intends to perform or perform better.

  1. If an owner wishes to be able to terminate for any failure to pay hire – irrespective of renunciation or repudiation – and claim damages in addition, it will now have to contract on special terms to this effect (cf. the hire provisions in the new NYPE 2015 form which so provide).

The Decision in More Detail

The facts

The Respondent (“Spar”) owned three supramax bulk carriers: SPAR CAPELLA, SPAR VEGA and SPAR DRACO. By three charterparties dated 5 March 2010 on amended NYPE 1993 forms, Spar agreed to let the vessels on long term time charter to Grand China Shipping (Hong Kong) Co Ltd (“GCS”). The Appellant (“GCL”) guaranteed GCS’s performance under the charterparties by three letters of guarantee dated 25 March 2010.

From April 2011, GCS was in arrears of payment of hire. There remained substantial arrears of hire on all three vessels over the summer of 2011 and GCS continued to miss payments or be late in making payment. But GCS protested that everything would be sorted out and that a financial solution was in the offing, and it made some payments on time.

Spar called on GCL to make payment under the guarantees on 16 September 2011. GCL failed to make payment, and Spar withdrew the vessels from service.

At the date of termination, the SPAR VEGA and the SPAR CAPELLA charterparties each had about four years left to run. The unexpired term of the SPAR DRACO charterparty was about 18 months.

Spar brought a claim against GCL under the guarantees.

At first instance, Popplewell J held that payment of hire by GCS in accordance with clause 11 of the charterparties was not a condition, disagreeing with the judgment of Flaux J in The Astra [2013] EWHC 865 (Comm). However, he concluded that GCS had renounced the charterparties and that Spar was entitled to US$24 million in damages for loss of bargain in respect of the unexpired terms of the charterparties.

GCL appealed, contending that the Judge erred in holding that GCS had renounced the charterparties, applying too strict a test which was out of step with other non-payment contexts.  It was argued that, looking at the overall benefit to be expected over the whole life of the charterparties, some short or late payments could not be said to be renunciatory. Spar argued that the Judge was right on the renunciation issue. By way of Respondent’s Notice, Spar contended that judgment should have been given in its favour on the additional ground that payment of hire by GCS in accordance with clause 11 was a condition.

The Reasoning of the Court of Appeal

(1) The Condition Issue

The Court held that the obligation to make punctual payment of hire was not a condition in standard form charterparties and that The Astra was wrongly decided.

Gross LJ’s reasons were these:

  1. The inclusion of the express withdrawal clause did not provide a strong or any indication that clause 11 was a condition. Historically, withdrawal clauses were included in charterparties to put beyond argument the shipowner’s entitlement to terminate the charterparty where the charterer had failed to make a timely payment of hire. As such, the withdrawal clause merely furnishes owners with an express contractual option to terminate on the occurrence of the event specified in the clause. Thus, the mere presence of a withdrawal clause gives no indication as to the consequences intended by the parties to flow from the exercise of the contractual termination clause.

  1. The most pertinent guidance from the authorities in the present context was the need not to be “too ready” to interpret clause 11 as a condition – indeed only to do so if the charterparties, on their true construction, made it clear that clause 11 was to be so classified: see Bunge v Tradax [1981] 1 WLR 711. As a matter of contractual construction, the charterparties did not make it clear that clause 11 was to be categorised as a condition. Clause 11 did not expressly make time of the essence. Not did it spell out the consequences of breach (in contrast to the NYPE 2015 form). Furthermore, breaches of clause 11 could range from the very trivial to the grave.

  1. Any general presumption of time being of the essence in mercantile contracts was not of significance or assistance in the present case. First, there was only limited scope for general presumptions in the specific, detailed and specialist context of payment of charterparty hire. Secondly, any presumption that time is generally of the essence in mercantile (or commercial) contracts does not generally apply to the time of payment, unless a different intention appears from the terms of the contract.

  1. The anti-technicality clause does not strengthen the case for the timely payment of hire being a condition of the charterparties. The anti-technicality clause does no more and no less than protect the charterers from the serious consequences of a withdrawal in the case of a failure to pay hire on “technical grounds”.

  1. Considerations of certainty are of major importance in the commercial context. But it is a question of striking the right balance. Classifying a contractual provision as a condition has advantages in terms of certainty; in particular, the innocent party is entitled to loss of bargain damages (such as they may be) regardless of the state of the market. Where, however, the likely breaches of an obligation may have consequences ranging from the trivial to the serious, then the downside of the certainty achieved by classifying an obligation as a condition is that trivial breaches will have disproportionate consequences. Considerable certainty could still be achieved by clause 11 being a contractual termination option. The trade-off between the attractions of certainty and the undesirability of trivial breaches carrying the consequences of a breach of condition is most acceptably achieved by treating clause 11 as a contractual termination option.

  1. The general view of the market has been that the obligation to make timely payments of hire is not a condition.

Hamblen LJ agreed with Gross LJ and added further observations of his own.

Of particular importance, is Hamblen LJ’s conclusion that it is not necessary to construe the obligation to pay hire timeously as a condition in order to give it commercial effect on the grounds that it is the owner’s only real protection in a falling market.

As Gross LJ also observed, certainty is provided by the withdrawal clause and there may be good reasons to invoke the clause notwithstanding a falling market (e.g. where the charterers are insolvent or owners depend on prompt payment to fund payments under a head charter or charterers’ payment record occasions administrative or other difficulties).

The Court was not, therefore, persuaded by the “provisional view” expressed by Lord Phillips in the Cedric Barclay Lecture 2015 that the obligation to pay hire is a condition because otherwise the right to withdraw would be “worthless” in a falling market.

Sir Terence Etherton MR agreed with both judgments. He summarised his conclusions on the Condition Issue in three propositions:

  1. There is no authority binding on the Court of Appeal as to whether or not the stipulated time for payment of hire in each of the charterparties was a condition.

  1. Whether the time payment stipulation was a condition is a question of interpretation of each of the charters. However, there is some authority to the broad effect that, in the absence of a clear indication to the contrary, the court leans against the interpretation of a contractual term as a condition (viz. Bunge v Tradax).

  1. The time payment stipulation was, on the proper interpretation of the charters, an innominate term. There is no presumption in a mercantile contract that a stipulated time for payment is a contractual condition. There is, in any event, no scope for any such presumption in the present case in view of the comprehensive terms of the charterparties.

(2) The Renunciation Issue

At [73] – [78] Gross LJ reviewed the authorities on the test for renunciation generally and in the specific context of the payment of hire under time charterparties.

He focused on the fact that the test for repudiatory breach and renunciation (i.e. anticipatory breach) has been described in different ways in the cases: e.g. an actual or threatened breach which deprives the innocent party of substantially the whole benefit of the contract; an actual or threatened breach which deprives the innocent party of a substantial part of the benefit of the contract; an actual or threatened breach which goes to the root of the contract; conduct evincing an intention to perform in a manner substantially inconsistent with the contract.

Considering recent extra-judicial statements as to the differences in these formulations and the unsatisfactory nature of a “goes to the root of the contract test”, Gross LJ held that the differences simply reflect the different facts and circumstances of the various cases, especially the terms of the particular contract in question, and the Court endorsed the “root of the contract” test as “useful and readily capable of application; a search for a more precise test is unlikely to be fruitful” [76].

In the time charterparty context, the Court endorsed and applied Spar’s suggested three stage analysis:

First, what was the contractual benefit Spar was intended to obtain from the charterparties?

Secondly, what was the prospective non-performance foreshadowed by GCS’s words and conduct?

Thirdly, was the prospective non-performance such as to go to the root of the contract?

Applying the law to the facts he concluded that:

  1. Prompt and full payment of hire in advance lay at the heart of the bargain between owner and time charterer: “the essence of the bargain under a time charterparty that the shipowner is entitled to the regular, periodical payment of hire as stipulated, in advance of performance, so long as the charterparty continues; hire is payable in advance to provide a fund from which shipowners can meet the expenses of rendering the services they have undertaken to provide under the charterparty; shipowners are not obliged to perform the services on credit; they do so only against advance payment” [83].

  1. The test for prospective non-performance was whether “a reasonable owner in the position of Spar (the formulation adopted in Universal Cargo Carriers v Citati [1957] 2 QB 401, at p. 436) could have no, certainly no realistic, expectation that GCS would in the future pay hire punctually in advance”. It was not enough that the charterer was willing to pay hire but in arrears or late. The Judge’s analysis, findings and conclusions with regard to renunciation could not properly be criticised.

  1. Given the history of late payments, the amounts and delays involved, together with the absence of any concrete or reliable assurance from GCS/GCL as to the future, the Judge was amply entitled to conclude that GCS had renounced the charterparties [87]. Gross LJ made the following important statements:

  1. “[GCS’s] prospective non-performance would unilaterally convert a contract for payment in advance into a transaction for unsecured credit and without any provision for the payment of interest.”

  1. “Taken to their logical conclusion, [GCS’s] submissions would mean that charterers could hold owners to the contracts by stating that all payments of hire would be made but late and in arrears – leaving owners obliged to accept this limping performance and attendant uncertainty. In my view, that is not the law, at least in this context.”

  1. “For the avoidance of doubt, whichever test is adopted the answer would be the same; thus I am satisfied that GCS’s evinced intention would deprive Spar of “substantially the whole benefit” of the charterparties and, for that matter, that GCS would be seeking to hold Spar to an arrangement “radically different” from that which had been agreed (the test for frustration).”

In the Master of the Rolls’ words (at [103]), GCS’s conduct “evinced an intention to turn each of the contracts into something radically different from its terms, namely from a contract for payment in advance … to one for payment in arrear – in effect the performance of services by the shipowner on credit”.

(3) Disposal

Irrespective of the Court’s decision on The Astra and the status of the obligation to pay hire, the Court therefore dismissed GCL’s appeal.

Unsafe ports. The Ocean Victory in the Supreme Court.

The Ocean Victory involved a Capesize vessel which became a constructive total loss at the discharge port of Kashima. The quay at Kashima was vulnerable to long waves which can result in a vessel being required to leave the port. The only route in and out of Kashima is by a narrow channel, the Kashima Fairway, which is vulnerable to northerly gales. There was no meteorological reason why these two events should occur at the same time, but on this occasion the two events did coincide when the vessel had to leave port due to long waves, and subsequently became a constructive total loss. The vessel was demise chartered on Barecon 89 form and sub-time chartered. Both charters contained a safe port warranty.  One of the vessel’s hull insurers took assignments of the owners’ and demise charterer’s rights and claimed for breach of the safe port warranty.

The Supreme Court which gave judgment yesterday, [2017] UKSC 35,  held that there had been no breach of the safe port undertaking.  The test for breach of the safe port undertaking was whether the damage sustained by the vessel had been caused by an “abnormal occurrence”, and the date for judging the breach of the safe port warranty was the date of nomination of the port. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal. The combination of long waves and the exceptional nature of the storm at Kashima constituted an abnormal occurrence. Accordingly, there had been no breach of the safe port warranty under the demise charter and the sub-time charter.

The Supreme Court also dealt with two further questions that would have arisen if there had been a breach of the safe port undertaking under the two charters.  The first was whether the provisions for joint insurance in clause 12 of the Barecon 89 form precluded rights of subrogation of hull insurers and the right of owners to recover in respect of losses covered by hull insurers against the demise charterer for breach of an express safe port undertaking. The majority view was that clause 12 did preclude such a claim and provided a comprehensive scheme for an insurance funded result in the event of loss of the vessel by marine risks. This scheme was not altered by the safe port undertaking.  The second was whether liability under the two charters could be limited under art. 2(1)(a) of the LLMC 1976. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the Court of Appeal in The CMA Djakarta [2004] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 460 that Article 2(1)(a) of the 1976 LLMC  which allows owners or charterers to limit liability for loss or damage to property “occurring on board the ship” or “in direct connexion with the operation of the ship” did not include loss or damage to the ship itself.

A matter of construction. Conflicting arbitration and jurisdiction clauses in time charter.

 

In London Arbitration 12/17 the tribunal considered a conflict as to law and jurisdiction arose under two clauses in a time charter. Clause 31, headed ‘Law and Arbitration’ provided for mediation and, if the dispute could not be resolved within sixty days, by reference to a single arbitrator, with arbitration to be “[h]eld at London, UK and…conducted in accordance with relevant acts and rules there under excluding any laws, opinions, or regulations that would require application of the laws of any other jurisdiction.” The parties appointed their own arbitrators and a third was appointed by the President of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association (LMAA). Charterers then raised the point that the contract was not subject to arbitration but rather to Egyptian law and jurisdiction pursuant to cl. 21, headed, APPLICABLE LAW, which provided: “This Contract and the relationship of the parties hereunder shall be governed by and interpreted in accordance with the laws of Egypt and parties hereby agree to submit to the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Courts in Cairo.”

The tribunal had to decide, under its general power to make a finding on its own jurisdiction, which clause, as a matter of construction  more closely expressed the intentions of the parties. The tribunal found in favour of cl.31 which appeared under the more all-embracing heading: “Law and Arbitration”, whereas Clause 21 appeared under the heading “Applicable Law”, no reference being made in the heading to jurisdiction. Further the reference in clause 31 to   attempts at settlement as a prelude to arbitration did not sit with an intention for the Egyptian courts to have jurisdiction.

No set-off of charterers’ claims against debt for reimbursement of additional premium.

 

In London Arbitration 11/17 the vessel was time chartered on an amended NYPE 93 form under which the charterers gave orders for a voyage to a range of ports in Yemen. This led to the vessel incurring an additional premium of nearly $203,000 for transiting the Gulf of Aden and a call to Yemen. The additional premium was for charterer’s account under 82,  but charterers said that there had been a significant increase in APs for Yemen with effect from 25 May 2015, and complained that if the owners had not been guilty of culpable delay during the earlier stages of the voyage, the charterers would only have been required to pay the pre-increase rates. The tribunal held that the sums due by way of clause 82 of the charter were due by way of debt and there was no express or implied right to make an equitable set-off of such debt. Owners were entitled to reimbursement of the Aps in full and charterers would then have to counterclaim whatever part of the sum now awarded was recoverable by the charterers by reason of breach of owners’ alleged breach of charter.

Costs of defending cargo claim. Recovery under Inter-Club Agreement.

 

In London Arbitration 30/16 the tribunal held that where a claim was made against owners, in circumstances in which they incurred no liability to the claimants under the bill of lading, the costs of defending the claim were recoverable under clause 3 of the 1996 Inter-Club Agreement. This had been incorporated into the time charter on NYPE 1993 form.

 

The claim had been brought in a foreign court against the registered owners, the master, and the charterers and judgment had been given against the time charterers. In doing so the tribunal departed from a previous arbitration award in London Arbitration 10/15 where it was held that such costs could not be recovered when there was in fact no liability to cargo owners. Alternatively, the tribunal found that the owners would be able to recover under an implied indemnity as the cause of the cargo damage was the charterer’s order to wait outside the discharge port for 35 days.

Charterer’s use of vessel as a floating warehouse an ‘act’ under the Inter-Club Agreement

 

 

In the Yangste Xing Hua [2016] EWHC 3132 (Comm) Teare J has construed the reference to ‘act or neglect of’ charterers or shipowners in cl.8 (d) of the 1996 Inter-Club Agreement as encompassing any act whether or not culpable. The relevant provision reads:

(d) All other cargo claims whatsoever (including claims for delay to cargo):

50% Charterers

50% Owners

unless there is clear and irrefutable evidence that the claim arose out of the act or neglect of the one or the other (including their servants or sub-contractors) in which case that party shall then bear 100% of the claim.”

 

Cargo damage arose due to overheating while the vessel waited off the discharge port in Iran for four months. The trip charterers had ordered the vessel to wait there as they had not been paid for the cargo. The resulting cargo damage fell under cl.8(d) of the ICA and was 100% for charterer’s account as it had arisen from their ‘act’.

Damages for renunciation under sub-time charter.

 

 

In Spar Shipping the shipowner recovered damages for a renunciation of the time charterer who shows that they do not intend to make full payments of hire in future. A similar claim may succeed where it is the disponent shipowner who is in this position and has withdrawn from the sub-time charter and is now seeking to recover damages for the unexpired balance of the charter. In London Arbitration 29/16 the tribunal awarded the disponent owner damages and rejected the charterer’s argument based on impossibility of performance, in that the head owners had also withdrawn the vessel under the head charter due to the disponent owner’s inability to pay hire.

The tribunal had first to consider whether the disponent owners would have been able to perform the charter, had the sub-charterers paid their hire. The tribunal had to consider the position not as it was at the moment of withdrawal, but as it would have been had charterers not defaulted. On that basis, disponent owners would have been able to perform the charter. Second, the tribunal had to consider the measure of damages. They would start by looking at the hire lost during the remainder of the charter period and credit would then be given for hire earned under alternative fixture/s. The owners had instead offered to give credit for the savings incurred in termination of the head charter which equated to the credit given by head owners in computing disponent owners’ liability for renunciation of the head charter. This was correct.

How to read the Inter-Club Agreement: order a ship around at your own risk

Teare J today faced a neat point of interpretation of the ICA. In Transgrain Shipping (Singapore) PTE Ltd v Yangtze Navigation (Hong Kong) Co Ltd [2016] EWHC 3132 (Comm) Transgrain sold soya bean meal to Iranian buyers. To transport it they chartered 45000 grt bulker MV Yangtze Xing Hua on a NYPE time charter trip. The ICA was expressly incorporated. The vessel arrived: the buyers were decidedly leisurely about paying for the cargo or collecting it. Transgrain in response ordered the vessel to wait for four months, it being cheaper to pay hire and/or demurrage (which could then be billed to the buyer) than to warehouse the cargo ashore.

At the end of the period the cargo overheated. The owners settled a cargo claim by the consignees for about € 2.6 million, and then turned on Transgrain. In arbitration proceedings neither Transgrain nor the owners were found to have been at fault; the overheating had been caused, unsurprisingly, by sitting for about 18 weeks off the Iranian coast. As a result Transgrain argued that this was a case of “all other cargo claims” and argued for a 50-50 split under s.8(d) of the ICA. Owners countered that under the proviso to s.8(d) claims caused by the “act or neglect” of one or other party were for that party’s account: Transgrain argued that “act”, yoked as it was to “neglect”, implied “negligent act” and that, there being no fault in anyone, the proviso fell away.

Teare J sided with owners: “act”, he said, meant “act”, no more and no less. Probably rightly, in our view. If you insist on using a vessel in a particular way – for example as a floating warehouse – and a third-party claim results, there is much to be said for the idea that this is something you do at your own risk. Mind you, this result now leaves plenty of work for lawyers in future cases in arguing about how far a given claim is caused by a given (faultless) act: but we can leave that for another day.

The Court of Appeal decision in SPAR SHIPPING: Defining an owner’s remedies for non-payment of hire and resolving the Astra ‘condition’ debate

The Court of Appeal handed down judgment today (7th October 2016) in Grand China Logistics Holding (Group) Co Ltd v Spar Shipping AS [2016] EWCA Civ 982 dismissing an appeal by unsuccessful time charterers. In doing so, it determined the controversial question of whether a charterer’s failure to pay an instalment of hire punctually and in advance under a time charterparty is a breach of condition, entitling the shipowner to terminate the charter and claim damages for the loss of the balance of the charterparty.

The Court of Appeal (Sir Terence Etherton MR, Gross and Hamblen LJJ) unanimously held that the answer to that question is “no” and that, without more, such a failure merely entitles the shipowner to withdraw the vessel from service in accordance with the withdrawal clause.

The decision, for all practical purposes, finally resolves an issue which has attracted much market interest and generated conflicting observations from judges of the highest standing. It also reviews modern principles applicable to the proper classification of a contract term as a condition.

The leading judgment of Gross LJ also contains a valuable summary of the legal principles relating to renunciation in the context of late and non-payment of hire under time charterparties.

The Court of Appeal firmly rejected a novel argument by the appellant time charterers that the test for renunciation by time charterers in relation to defaults in payment of hire (whether by late or short payment) was applied too strictly (“unwarrantably severe”) and was out of step with the Court’s approach in other non-payment contexts under different types of contract, thereby amounting to unjustified “preferential treatment” for shipowners under time charters.

Simon Rainey QC, Nevil Phillips and Natalie Moore appeared for the successful respondent owners.

Headline Summary of the Decision

  1. The obligation to pay hire under a time charterparty is not a condition but an innominate or intermediate term. Flaux J’s decision to the contrary in The Astra [2013] EWHC 865 (Comm) was wrong.
  1. The obligation to pay hire promptly and in advance under a time charterparty lay at the heart of the contractual bargain represented by such a charterparty. Late and short payment would unilaterally convert a contract for payment in advance into a transaction for unsecured credit and without any provision for the payment of interest: such conduct went to the root of the contract, was renunciatory and entitled an owner to terminate.
  1. While therefore removing the availability of a condition from the shipowner’s arsenal of remedies for non-payment of hire, the Court of Appeal has roundly endorsed the critical importance of prompt and full payment of hire in advance, and has emphatically highlighted the risks which a time-charterer takes in making payment late or in missing payments, however much it protests that it wishes or intends to perform or perform better.
  1. If an owner wishes to be able to terminate for any failure to pay hire – irrespective of renunciation or repudiation – and claim damages in addition, it will now have to contract on special terms to this effect (cf. the hire provisions in the new NYPE 2015 form which so provide).

The Decision in More Detail

The facts

The Respondent (“Spar”) owned three supramax bulk carriers: SPAR CAPELLA, SPAR VEGA and SPAR DRACO. By three charterparties dated 5 March 2010 on amended NYPE 1993 forms, Spar agreed to let the vessels on long term time charter to Grand China Shipping (Hong Kong) Co Ltd (“GCS”). The Appellant (“GCL”) guaranteed GCS’s performance under the charterparties by three letters of guarantee dated 25 March 2010.

From April 2011, GCS was in arrears of payment of hire. There remained substantial arrears of hire on all three vessels over the summer of 2011 and GCS continued to miss payments or be late in making payment. But GCS protested that everything would be sorted out and that a financial solution was in the offing, and it made some payments on time.

Spar called on GCL to make payment under the guarantees on 16 September 2011. GCL failed to make payment, and Spar withdrew the vessels from service.

At the date of termination, the SPAR VEGA and the SPAR CAPELLA charterparties each had about four years left to run. The unexpired term of the SPAR DRACO charterparty was about 18 months.

Spar brought a claim against GCL under the guarantees.

At first instance, Popplewell J held that payment of hire by GCS in accordance with clause 11 of the charterparties was not a condition, disagreeing with the judgment of Flaux J in The Astra [2013] EWHC 865 (Comm). However, he concluded that GCS had renounced the charterparties and that Spar was entitled to US$24 million in damages for loss of bargain in respect of the unexpired terms of the charterparties.

GCL appealed, contending that the Judge erred in holding that GCS had renounced the charterparties, applying too strict a test which was out of step with other non-payment contexts.  It was argued that, looking at the overall benefit to be expected over the whole life of the charterparties, some short or late payments could not be said to be renunciatory. Spar argued that the Judge was right on the renunciation issue. By way of Respondent’s Notice, Spar contended that judgment should have been given in its favour on the additional ground that payment of hire by GCS in accordance with clause 11 was a condition.

The Reasoning of the Court of Appeal

(1) The Condition Issue

The Court held that the obligation to make punctual payment of hire was not a condition in standard form charterparties and that The Astra was wrongly decided.

Gross LJ’s reasons were these:

  1. The inclusion of the express withdrawal clause did not provide a strong or any indication that clause 11 was a condition. Historically, withdrawal clauses were included in charterparties to put beyond argument the shipowner’s entitlement to terminate the charterparty where the charterer had failed to make a timely payment of hire. As such, the withdrawal clause merely furnishes owners with an express contractual option to terminate on the occurrence of the event specified in the clause. Thus, the mere presence of a withdrawal clause gives no indication as to the consequences intended by the parties to flow from the exercise of the contractual termination clause.
  1. The most pertinent guidance from the authorities in the present context was the need not to be “too ready” to interpret clause 11 as a condition – indeed only to do so if the charterparties, on their true construction, made it clear that clause 11 was to be so classified: see Bunge v Tradax [1981] 1 WLR 711. As a matter of contractual construction, the charterparties did not make it clear that clause 11 was to be categorised as a condition. Clause 11 did not expressly make time of the essence. Not did it spell out the consequences of breach (in contrast to the NYPE 2015 form). Furthermore, breaches of clause 11 could range from the very trivial to the grave.
  1. Any general presumption of time being of the essence in mercantile contracts was not of significance or assistance in the present case. First, there was only limited scope for general presumptions in the specific, detailed and specialist context of payment of charterparty hire. Secondly, any presumption that time is generally of the essence in mercantile (or commercial) contracts does not generally apply to the time of payment, unless a different intention appears from the terms of the contract.
  1. The anti-technicality clause does not strengthen the case for the timely payment of hire being a condition of the charterparties. The anti-technicality clause does no more and no less than protect the charterers from the serious consequences of a withdrawal in the case of a failure to pay hire on “technical grounds”.
  1. Considerations of certainty are of major importance in the commercial context. But it is a question of striking the right balance. Classifying a contractual provision as a condition has advantages in terms of certainty; in particular, the innocent party is entitled to loss of bargain damages (such as they may be) regardless of the state of the market. Where, however, the likely breaches of an obligation may have consequences ranging from the trivial to the serious, then the downside of the certainty achieved by classifying an obligation as a condition is that trivial breaches will have disproportionate consequences. Considerable certainty could still be achieved by clause 11 being a contractual termination option. The trade-off between the attractions of certainty and the undesirability of trivial breaches carrying the consequences of a breach of condition is most acceptably achieved by treating clause 11 as a contractual termination option.
  1. The general view of the market has been that the obligation to make timely payments of hire is not a condition.

Hamblen LJ agreed with Gross LJ and added further observations of his own.

Of particular importance, is Hamblen LJ’s conclusion that it is not necessary to construe the obligation to pay hire timeously as a condition in order to give it commercial effect on the grounds that it is the owner’s only real protection in a falling market.

As Gross LJ also observed, certainty is provided by the withdrawal clause and there may be good reasons to invoke the clause notwithstanding a falling market (e.g. where the charterers are insolvent or owners depend on prompt payment to fund payments under a head charter or charterers’ payment record occasions administrative or other difficulties).

The Court was not, therefore, persuaded by the “provisional view” expressed by Lord Phillips in the Cedric Barclay Lecture 2015 that the obligation to pay hire is a condition because otherwise the right to withdraw would be “worthless” in a falling market.

Sir Terence Etherton MR agreed with both judgments. He summarised his conclusions on the Condition Issue in three propositions:

  1. There is no authority binding on the Court of Appeal as to whether or not the stipulated time for payment of hire in each of the charterparties was a condition.
  1. Whether the time payment stipulation was a condition is a question of interpretation of each of the charters. However, there is some authority to the broad effect that, in the absence of a clear indication to the contrary, the court leans against the interpretation of a contractual term as a condition (viz. Bunge v Tradax).
  1. The time payment stipulation was, on the proper interpretation of the charters, an innominate term. There is no presumption in a mercantile contract that a stipulated time for payment is a contractual condition. There is, in any event, no scope for any such presumption in the present case in view of the comprehensive terms of the charterparties.

(2) The Renunciation Issue

At [73] – [78] Gross LJ reviewed the authorities on the test for renunciation generally and in the specific context of the payment of hire under time charterparties.

He focused on the fact that the test for repudiatory breach and renunciation (i.e. anticipatory breach) has been described in different ways in the cases: e.g. an actual or threatened breach which deprives the innocent party of substantially the whole benefit of the contract; an actual or threatened breach which deprives the innocent party of a substantial part of the benefit of the contract; an actual or threatened breach which goes to the root of the contract; conduct evincing an intention to perform in a manner substantially inconsistent with the contract.

Considering recent extra-judicial statements as to the differences in these formulations and the unsatisfactory nature of a “goes to the root of the contract test”, Gross LJ held that the differences simply reflect the different facts and circumstances of the various cases, especially the terms of the particular contract in question, and the Court endorsed the “root of the contract” test as “useful and readily capable of application; a search for a more precise test is unlikely to be fruitful” [76].

In the time charterparty context, the Court endorsed and applied Spar’s suggested three stage analysis:

First, what was the contractual benefit Spar was intended to obtain from the charterparties?

Secondly, what was the prospective non-performance foreshadowed by GCS’s words and conduct?

Thirdly, was the prospective non-performance such as to go to the root of the contract?

Applying the law to the facts he concluded that:

  1. Prompt and full payment of hire in advance lay at the heart of the bargain between owner and time charterer: “the essence of the bargain under a time charterparty that the shipowner is entitled to the regular, periodical payment of hire as stipulated, in advance of performance, so long as the charterparty continues; hire is payable in advance to provide a fund from which shipowners can meet the expenses of rendering the services they have undertaken to provide under the charterparty; shipowners are not obliged to perform the services on credit; they do so only against advance payment” [83].
  1. The test for prospective non-performance was whether “a reasonable owner in the position of Spar (the formulation adopted in Universal Cargo Carriers v Citati [1957] 2 QB 401, at p. 436) could have no, certainly no realistic, expectation that GCS would in the future pay hire punctually in advance”. It was not enough that the charterer was willing to pay hire but in arrears or late. The Judge’s analysis, findings and conclusions with regard to renunciation could not properly be criticised.
  1. Given the history of late payments, the amounts and delays involved, together with the absence of any concrete or reliable assurance from GCS/GCL as to the future, the Judge was amply entitled to conclude that GCS had renounced the charterparties [87]. Gross LJ made the following important statements:
    1. “[GCS’s] prospective non-performance would unilaterally convert a contract for payment in advance into a transaction for unsecured credit and without any provision for the payment of interest.”
    2. “Taken to their logical conclusion, [GCS’s] submissions would mean that charterers could hold owners to the contracts by stating that all payments of hire would be made but late and in arrears – leaving owners obliged to accept this limping performance and attendant uncertainty. In my view, that is not the law, at least in this context.”
    3. “For the avoidance of doubt, whichever test is adopted the answer would be the same; thus I am satisfied that GCS’s evinced intention would deprive Spar of “substantially the whole benefit” of the charterparties and, for that matter, that GCS would be seeking to hold Spar to an arrangement “radically different” from that which had been agreed (the test for frustration).”

In the Master of the Rolls’ words (at [103]), GCS’s conduct “evinced an intention to turn each of the contracts into something radically different from its terms, namely from a contract for payment in advance … to one for payment in arrear – in effect the performance of services by the shipowner on credit”.

(3) Disposal

Irrespective of the Court’s decision on The Astra and the status of the obligation to pay hire, the Court therefore dismissed GCL’s appeal.