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.

Inherent Vice: Who proves what and how?

Volcafe Ltd v Compania Sud Americana de Vapores SA (“CSAV”) [2016] EWCA Civ 1103.

It’s indeed a good day for carriers as the CA has now restored the balance between carriers’ and cargo owners’ interests by reversing the controversial first instance judgement in Volcafe Ltd  v CSAV [2015] EWHC 516 (Comm).

This case arose out of condensate damage to nine consignments of coffee, which were carried in unventilated containers from Buanaventura in Colombia to destinations in North Germany. The High Court (Mr David Donaldson) rendered a judgement in favour of the cargo owners on the basis that, although the cargo damage was attributed to inherent vice of the goods carried, the carrier had not disproved his negligence. The carrier had failed to establish that he had adopted a sound system as underpinned by a theoretical calculation or empirical study.

The CA (Lady Justice Gloster, Lady Justice King and Mr Justice Flaux, sitting in the Court of Appeal) allowed the carrier’s appeal in respect of his defences of inherent vice.

Flaux J, who delivered the leading judgement, ruled that that once the carrier had established the inherent vice exception, the burden of proof shifted to the cargo owners to show that there had been negligence on the part of the carrier. He further held that such an approach is consistent with the weight of the authorities, which have applied the principles enunciated in The Glendarroch, even where the contract of carriage is governed by the Hague Rules, as well as with the principle that “he who alleges must prove”. In addition, he found that the adopted approach is supported by the wording of the “catch all exception” which is the only excepted peril that expressly requires the carrier to disprove his negligence before relying on this exception.

In addition, Flaux J rejected trial judge’s analysis of ‘complete circularity’ between Hague Rules, art. III, r.2 and art. IV, r. 2(m) because this approach deprives the exception in paragraph (m) of its force and that it has been long recognised as an excepted peril. Furthermore, he rejected trial judge’s approach to a “sound system” and in particular his requirement for a scientific calculation or empirical study. He held that such an interpretation imposes a standard beyond what the law requires. He also reiterated the well-established position that one of the indicia of a sound system is that it is in accordance with general industry practice.

The CA decision in Volcafe is welcome not only because it strikes a fair balance between carriers’ and cargo owners’ competing interests but also because it promotes the uniform application of the Hague and in turn the Hague-Visby Rules. In particular, the CA decision brings English case law in line with authorities in the United States and New Zealand who have held that, in case of inherent vice or other excepted perils (excluding the q defence), it is the shipper who bears the burden of showing that the damage resulted from negligence or fault caused by the carrier (See for example, Quaker Oats Co. v. M/V TORVANGER, 734 F.2d 238, 1984 AMC 2943 (5th Cir. 1984), U.S. v. Ocean Bulk Ships, Inc. 248 F.3d 331 (5th Cir. 2001), Terman Foods, Inc.v. Omega Lines 707 F.2d 1225 (11th Cir. 1983) and Shaw Savill & Albion Company Ltd v Powley & Co [1949] N.Z.L.R. 668).

As a final remark, one should not underestimate the impact of Volcafe on the approach to the burden of proof in all of the defences (except from the “catchall exception”) enumerated in Hague and Hague-Visby Rules, art. IV, r.2. Flaux J found the wording of the “catchall exception” as supporting the analysis that, in the case of all other exceptions, the carrier’s reliance on any excepted peril is not dependent upon the carrier disproving his negligence.

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.

Pirates, ransom, and general average. There really is no alternative.

 

The Longchamp involved the allowance in General Average under Rule F of the York Antwerp Rules 1974 of expenses incurred by the shipowners while they were negotiating a ransom with Somali pirates over a period of some six weeks following the vessel’s seizure in the Gulf of Aden. Four items were claimed in respect of this period: crew wages, the high risk bonus due to the crew for being at sea in a high risk area, crew maintenance, bunkers consumed. Stephen Hofmeyr QC found that all items were allowable in general average. His finding has now been overruled by the Court of Appeal : [2016] EWCA Civ 708.

Rule F provides:

“Any extra expense incurred in place of another expense which would have been allowable as general average shall be deemed to be general average and so allowed without regard to the saving, if any, to other interests, but only up to the amount of the general average expense avoided.

The crux of the matter is whether these expenses were incurred “in place of another expense which would have been allowable as general average”. In this case, the shipowners claimed these expenses were incurred in place of an immediate payment of the demanded ransom at a higher figure than the ransom eventually negotiated. The Court of Appeal accepted cargo’s contention that in fact there was only one course open after the hijacking of the vessel (negotiation with the pirates to seek to achieve a release of the vessel and cargo) and the substituted expenses were incurred taking that course. There were only two available options to the owners once the vessel had been seized by pirates – abandon the vessel and cargo or engage with the pirates, negotiate and agree a ransom and pay it to effect release of ship, crew and cargo.  Rule F presupposes some real choice being made. Acceptance of the initial ransom demand is not a true alternative; nor is acceptance of any other ransom sum less than that initially demanded but greater than that eventually agreed.  Accordingly, the four expenses claimed by owners were not allowable in under Rule F.

The owners also claimed in respect of the costs of professional media response under Rule A in that they were incurred “for the common safety for the purpose of preserving from peril the property involved in a common maritime adventure”.  At first instance, cargo interests argued that the costs must have been incurred for that sole purpose. The Judge rejected that argument and held that the costs were allowed.  On appeal they submitted that the costs must have been incurred for that predominant purpose. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument. It was enough that preserving the property from peril was an effective cause.

Carriers Be Aware!!!! (Contribution Claims Fall outside the Athens Regime)

All personal injury, loss of life or loss of / damage to luggage claims must be brought against the carrier (contracting or performing) under Art 14 of the Convention Relating to the Carriage of Passengers and their Luggage by Sea (Athens Convention), however, the Convention does not purport to be a complete Code governing all liabilities of sea carriers – for example, it is silent both with regard to claims of passengers against the carrier in cases of cancellation of the scheduled voyage and with rights of recourse as between carriers and other parties.

What about a contribution claim brought by a third party against the carrier? Would such claims be subject to the time bar provisions of the Athens Convention? This was the primary discussion point in Feest v. South Strategic Health Authority and Another [2015] EWCA Civ 708. In August 2008, the claimant sustained a spinal injury while on a boat tour with her work colleagues (as part of a team building exercise) in the Bristol Channel. She sued her employer and sought damages for her injury. Her employer then issued a Part 20 claim against the owner of the boat for contribution under s. 1(1) of the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978. Granting the application of the owner for a summary judgment on the Part 20 claim, the district judge dismissed the claim on the ground that it was time bared (as it was brought later than 2 years, stipulated by Art 16 of the Athens Convention).  The defendant employer’s appeal was dismissed by Judge Havelock-Allan QC, sitting as a judge of the Queen’s Bench of the Bristol Mercantile Court. The defendant then appealed to the Court of Appeal which reversed the said judgment.  It was held that a claim for contribution is autonomous from the Athens Convention and it derives from the English domestic statute entitlement to contribution. On that basis, the time bar provisions of the Athens Convention would not apply to a contribution claim. An alternative argument, developed by the counsel for the carrier to the effect that Art 16 of the Athens Convention extinguishes the right for an action rather than bars the remedy of court proceedings, was also rejected by the Court of Appeal. This might come as a surprise to continental lawyers as, in continental jurisdictions, time bar provisions usually have the effect of extinguishing the right to any claim (including contribution rights). However, unlike Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention, Article 16 of the Athens Convention does not address this issue with any real definitive language and leaves it to national law to determine the effect of the time bar provision. In English law, the effect of time bar provisions is normally to deny the plaintiff a right of action after a certain period has elapsed but the right is not extinguished.

From the perspective of international maritime law, the outcome of the Court of Appeal is disappointing but the fact remains that the UK legal system is dualist in nature and in the absence of clear language used in an international convention, disputes as to interpretation of provisions of a convention will be resolved by the application of the national law, which is, of course, what happened here!

No loss, no damages: latest from the CA

Christmas reading from the English CA for charterparty buffs and damages enthusiasts. In The New Flamenco [2015] EWCA Civ 1299 , decided a couple of days ago, a cruise ship under time-charter at a highish rate was wrongfully redelivered a couple of years early. That’s OK, said the owners: we’ll just have those two years’ lost profits, please (there being no relevant market). Not so fast, say the charterers. You sold the ship on redelivery for a very tidy sum: had we given her back at the proper time the market would have collapsed and you’d have got many millions of dollars less for her — a figure that dwarfs any profits lost. In fact you should be d****d grateful to us for breaking our contract, since you’re actually a great deal better off than if we’d kept it.

Arbitrators hold for the charterers; Teare J on appeal for the owners. In a rare reversal of Teare J, the CA restore the arbitrators’ decision. Whatever the case where there is a market rate, in non-market cases where the claimant claims on the basis of profits lost, the general British Westinghouse rule applies and any gains resulting are in account. A salutary reminder from Longmore LJ at [29]: “compensation for actual loss is the underlying principle and … in this connection, it is the available market rule that is a gloss on that underlying principle.” Verb sap.

Happy Christmas to all.

AT