Broad interpretation should be given to some international conventions: Supreme Court

A ruling by the UK Supreme Court has suggested that courts should give consideration to the overall purpose of a convention and place less emphasis on technical analysis and domestic approaches to statutory interpretation.

Danielle Southey, Syndicate Associate, European Syndicate, Steamship P&I Club, reported on Warner v Scapa Flow Charters (Scotland), in which the Supreme Court considered an appeal from the Scottish courts on the application of the Athens Convention time bar.

A claim in negligence was brought against Scapa Flow Charters (SFC) by a widow on behalf of herself and her young son following the death of her husband whilst on board a dive boat operated by SFC.

The parties agreed that the Athens Convention, which provides a liability regime for passenger death, personal injury and property damage claims that arise on seagoing vessels, should apply to the claim.

The claim against SFC was lodged in May 2015, two years and 10 months after the incident. SFC defended the claim on the grounds that it was time barred under Article 16 (1) of the Athens Convention, which provides for a two year time bar running from the date of disembarkation (or when disembarkation would have taken place).

SFC’s time bar defence succeeded at the first instance.

On appeal, the Scottish courts upheld the decision in respect of the widow’s claim but reversed it in respect of the claim on behalf of her son, who had been less than a year old at the time of the accident.

SFC appealed to the Supreme Court of the UK, which is the highest court of appeal on certain civil claims in Scotland, on the question of whether the son’s claim was time barred.

The Supreme Court dismissed SFC’s appeal and agreed that the son’s claim was not time barred.

Lord Hodge opened his judgment by setting out the underlying principle that the claim should be subject to the two year time bar of Article 16 (1) unless it was extended in accordance with 16 (3) which provides that the law of the court seized should govern the grounds of suspension and interruption of the limitation period. Lord Hodge made clear that. if extended by the law of the court seized, the three-year longstop limitation would apply and domestic law could not extend the limitation beyond the three years.

The claimant relied on the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973. SFC argued that, because Scottish law “postponed” the limitation period, as opposed to ‘suspending’ or ‘interrupting’ it, the relevant article of the Athens Convention did not apply.

Lord Hodge rejected this argument, concluding that the word ‘suspension’ was sufficiently broad to include rules postponing the start of a limitation period.

SFC’s second contention was that the words ‘suspension’ and ‘interruption’ had particular and technical meanings derived from certain civil law systems, including Spain and France.  ‘Suspension’, SFC said, occurred when an incident paused a limitation period, whilst an ‘interruption’ had the effect of restarting the limitation period afresh.

Lord Hodge rejected this argument, stating:

“It is not appropriate to look to the domestic law of certain civil law systems for a technical meaning of the words in an international convention which was designed to be operated in many common law systems as well.”

Furthermore, Lord Hodge concluded there was in fact no uniformity in the use of the word ‘suspension’ amongst other civil law systems.

The writer observed that this case would not immediately alter the position under English law: the two year time bar under Article 16 (1) of the Athens convention would still apply.

Lord Hodge said he agreed with the Court of Appeal’s view that Section 33 should not be seen as a ground of ‘suspension’ or ‘interruption’, as required by Article 16 (3) of the Athens Convention.

Nevertheless, while Section 33 may not have given rise to an Article 16 (3) extension, it was possible that other domestic provisions would give rise to an extended time limit, particularly if the English courts followed the broad interpretation principles discussed in Warner v Scapa Flow Charters.

Southey concluded that Lord Hodge’s judgment provided a useful summary of how the courts looked at international conventions. The uniformity with which different courts interpreted international conventions was crucial to shipping, given the frequency with which such conventions were used

Lord Hodge pointed to travaux preparatoires (the body of documents recording the preparatory work and discussions in preparation of a convention), case law of foreign courts and the writings of jurists as appropriate aids of interpretation.

The importance of travaux preparatoires had, in the past, been somewhat uncertain indeed examination of the Athens Convention’s travaux preparatoires did little to inform Lord Hodge’s judgment in the case of Warner v Scapa Flow Charters. Southey added that the Supreme Court judgment in Warner v Scapa Flow Charters provided useful guidance, not only on the time bar issues surrounding Athens Convention claims, but also on how domestic courts might look at international conventions. “The judgment suggests that a broad interpretation be given to such international conventions and that courts should give consideration to the overall purpose of a convention and place less emphasis on technical analysis and domestic approaches to statutory interpretation”, she wrote.

Relevant cases:

Warner v Scapa Flow Charterers (Scotland) [2018] UCSC 52

Higham v Stena Sealink Ltd [1996]2 Lloyd’s Rep. 26

Fothergill v Monarch Airlines Ltd [1981] AC 251

“Giannis NK” Effort Shipping v Linden Management S.A. and Others [1998] Lloyd’s Rep. 337 bars international conventions012019.htm