(Published at The Maritime Advocate on 21st September 2015)
Blas de Lezo has recently obtained a Court Resolution from the Mercantile Court No.3 of Vigo, Spain, which has now been upheld by the competent Court of Appeal confirming that, in certain circumstances, a lawyer’s invoice amounts to a «maritime claim» as described by the 1999 Arrest Convention.
The facts were that a shipowner retained lawyers in Spain to perform several instructions in order to settle certain claims owed by a ship belonging to the shipowner, but also to bring the ship back to class. The later meant that the lawyers had to hire the services of engineers, technicians, security guards and also seek the best offer possible from several local shipyards to refit the vessel.
All the tasks were performed successfully and as instructed, but the shipowner failed to pay the lawyers. After several unsuccessful chasers, the lawyers decided to arrest the ship and to commence arbitration.
The Mercantile Court of Vigo accepted that the lawyers had a «maritime claim» as described in the 1999 Arrest Convention. The shipowner, who logically enough instructed new lawyers, argued that lawyers’ invoices were out of the scope of the 1999 Arrest Convention, but lost the legal battle and the Mercantile Court found in favour of the law firm that arrested the ship. The Shipowner then appealed to the competent Court of Appeal, which in May 2015 decided that the unpaid invoice of a lawyer does qualify as a «maritime claim» and a the ship can consequently be arrested.
The Court of Appeal made clear that under the relevant international convention, the lawyers simply had to «assert» that the claim existed, the only requirement being to explain to the Court which type of claim, within all those in the convention’s list, they were asserting. The Court of Appeal was satisfied that when lawyers perform certain tasks beyond litigation, such as the hire of services of engineers, technicians, security guards and also to negotiate with shipyards, the lawyer’s claim falls within the definition in Article 1.1.(l) «(l) goods, materials, provisions, bunkers, equipment (including containers) supplied or services rendered to the ship for its operation, management, preservation or maintenance.»
Shortly after receiving the Court of Appeal’s resolution, the shipowners settled the lawyer’s invoice and the arrest was lifted.
The relevance of this Court Resolution is quite obvious. It is the first time, to our knowledge, that a Court has arrested a ship for an unpaid lawyer’s invoice. It also provides further guidance to the 1999 Arrest Convention as to the wide interpretation which is given by Courts, in particular in Spain, which helps to reinforce Spain as an arrest haven. And finally, it gives a powerful tool to lawyers left out of pocket by former shipowner clients.