Introduction

In a dry bulk market where a charterer is not paying freight or hire, its counterparty is often left to consider whether it can lien the cargo on board the chartered vessel to obtain payment voluntarily, or by court sale if necessary.

This often involves looking at a Congenbill bill of lading and establishing whether a charterparty lien clause applies via Clause (1) on the reverse, which incorporates all "terms and conditions, liberties and exceptions of the Charterparty, dated as overleaf". Problems arise when:

  • there is no date overleaf and there are a number of charterparties in a chain, any of which could apply; or
  • there are a number of charterparties in the chain with the same date as overleaf.

The question then becomes which charterparty lien clause to apply and to what debt to apply it.

Charterparty liens under English law

As a matter of English law, the absence of a date overleaf on the face of the Congenbill does not prevent a charterparty from being incorporated. Where there is only one charter, direct with the head owner, there is no doubt as to its application. However, the situation becomes complicated if there is:

  • a head time charter;
  • a sub-time charter;
  • a head voyage charter; and
  • a sub-voyage charter.

Which of these four charters is to be incorporated? An owner will normally assert that the head charter should be incorporated (ie, because it has signed it). Likewise, a receiver under the bill will usually argue for the sub-voyage charter – again, because this was the contract that it knew of when arranging the shipment. However, English law points in a different direction.

The starting point is that under a time charter, the time charterer has power over the issue of the bill of lading, provided that this reflects the mate's receipts. The time charterer also has the authority to give orders to the master and direct the vessel in its commercial business. As such, the charterparty of greatest influence on the voyage is likely to have a time charterer as one of the parties.

However, insofar as the Congenbill concerns only a single voyage, the charterparty likely to be most relevant will be a voyage charter. As such, English law hesitantly arrives at the position that the applicable charterparty is that in which a time charterer is acting as disponent owner, with the head voyage charterer as its counterparty. In other words, in the above scenario, the terms of the head voyage charter between the sub-time charterer and the head voyage charterer will be incorporated into the Congenbill.

This raises a further question: if the bill of lading is an owner's bill made between the head owner and receiver, how can a lien in the head voyage charter be applied to that bill when it refers to freight due to the sub-time charterer, which is not a party to the bill? Does the fact that the freight subject to the lien will not be paid to the head owner bar exercise of the lien? English law suggests not. Provided that the freight is still due to be paid by the head voyage charterer to the sub-time charterer, the sub-time charterer can direct the head time charterer to direct the head owner to exercise the lien on its behalf (against its indemnity for the costs, expenses and potential liabilities involved). The head owner acts as a form of trustee in such a lien and accounts to the time charterer for any payments received as a consequence of the lien.

Persuading the head owner to take such steps can be difficult, particularly if it has been paid hire in full and has no personal interest in collecting the freight for the time charterer. However, if the head owner does not exercise a formal lien, it might face an order from the time charterer to stop the vessel in an attempt to obtain payment. The head owner might argue that this puts it in breach of the Congenbill as against the receiver, to which the time charterer might reply that it has the right to give orders (including the right to order the head owner on how to exercise rights under the bill of lading), so if the head owner refuses, it is in breach. The respective rights and wrongs of such a showdown would be complex; but faced with this situation, a head owner may prefer to exercise the lien itself as trustee to protect itself from claims under the bill of lading from the receiver – particularly if it obtains an indemnity from the time charterer in the process.

Comment

As in all charterparty matters, generalisations are interesting, but the individual circumstances of each dispute must be carefully checked to see whether they apply. Bearing that in mind, when it comes to liening cargo under a Congenbill, it seems that English law will look first to the head voyage charterparty as the source of relevant terms to be incorporated into the Congenbill (unless another charter is expressly identified), and this is likely to lead to a less-than-obvious outcome.

For further information on this topic please contact Robert Joiner at Wikborg Rein's Singapore office by telephone (+65 6438 4498) or email (raj@wr.com.sg). Alternatively, contact Oddbjørn Slinning or Herman Steen at Wikborg Rein's Oslo office by telephone (+47 2282 7500) or email (osl@wr.no or hst@wr.no). The Wikborg Rein website can be accessed at www.wr.no.

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