High Court Admiralty Jurisdiction Amendment Bill – Speech by Dennis Tan

Delivered in Parliament on 26 May 2020

I declare my interest as a shipping lawyer in private practice.

The High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act sets out the Admiralty jurisdiction of our High Court. A robust admiralty law and regime is always important to a major international maritime hub. Singapore is one of the major maritime hubs in the world alongside Hong Kong and London.

One other advantage we have had for many years is that we have one of the busiest ports in the world and many ships stop by for bunkering, transshipment, or other services. Many ships also passed by Singapore en route to ports elsewhere in the world. A busy port allows the greater possibility of seizing jurisdiction for admiralty claims in our courts.

Mr Speaker sir, on 14 January 2019, I spoke at the Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Amendment) Bill and supported the Bill. The Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Amendment) Act brought into force two key maritime conventions, one of which is the International Convention on Salvage of 1989.   

Today, the proposed amendments to the High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act (“HCAJA”) are consequential to the adoption of the Salvage Convention in our laws. The HCAJA provides for the Admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court. It essentially sets out the various maritime claims allowed under our admiralty law and how Admiralty jurisdiction can be invoked for any claim and against any ship or even company or individual.

The Amendment Bill today proposes to extend the Admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court to any claim for salvage which falls under the Salvage Convention of 1989 and also any contractual claim for salvage. It also provides that services rendered in saving life from a ship is made under the Salvage Convention and not under a previous provision.

Mr Speaker, sir, at the Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping (Miscellaneous Amendment) Bill, I mentioned that the English House of Lords had in the case of the ‘Nagasaki Spirit’ identified problems with the wording of Article 14 of the Convention. Essentially, it was decided that the term ‘fair rate’ in Article 14 for environmental salvage only cover expenditure but does not include an element of profit.

I said we could address this issue in our law by including an extended definition of ‘damage to the environment’ to any place where the damage may occur and the ‘fair rate’ as referred to in Article 14 is deemed to include an element of profit, just like what South Africa did in their law. I was disappointed that this was not taken up.

However, I am happy to note that, in the explanatory note to today’s Amendment Bill, it has been explained that the existing coverage under Section 3(1)(i) has been expanded to (and I quote):

“(a)     Any claim under the Salvage Convention, including Article 14 of the Convention which relates to the entitlement of a salvor that has carried out salvage operations in respect of a vessel which by itself or its cargo threatened damage to the environment, to special compensation where such salvage did not result in any vessel or other property being salved;

(b)       Any claim under a contract for salvage services to carry out any salvage operation to prevent or minimise damage to the environment, even where such salvage operation did not result in any ship, apparel, cargo or wreck being salved.” 

I welcome these inclusions not just because they are consistent with the Salvage Convention. More importantly, they encourage salvors to carry out salvage work on a vessel which by itself or its cargo threatened damage to environment or to prevent or minimise damage to environment even when the salvage work did not result in the ship or cargo being salved. In this way, salvors will not be motivated solely by or pressured merely by the need to achieve a positive salvage in terms of the ship or cargo. This will encourage salvors to place significant consideration on possible damage to environment or to mitigate such damage.

This is consistent with environmental concerns of the international community which developed in the last 30 years as a result of the huge damage to environment caused by numerous notorious cases like the Exxon Valdez, the Erika and the MSC Prestige and which also led to changes in the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea and the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage.

Mr Speaker, sir, I support this Bill.