An abandoned vessel can pose a significant risk to safety, navigation, the environment and the reputation and efficient commercial operation of the harbour. If it’s not dealt with, it can put harbour authorities in breach of their statutory duties, and broader legal duties to ensure that the harbour for which they are responsible for is safe. The purpose of this article is to identify some of the key legal options that may be available for a harbour master looking to deal with an abandoned vessel.

Statutory powers

The first point of reference for many harbour authorities will be their underlying legislation which may incorporate or implement express powers to deal with vessels within the harbour authority’s area. In addition to this, the underlying legal regime offers a broad range of powers to remove abandoned vessels.

For example, The Dangerous Vessels Act 1985 enables a harbour master to give directions requiring the removal of a vessel if, in his opinion, the condition of that vessel is such that its presence in the harbour might involve a grave and imminent danger to the safety of persons or property.  Likewise, where a vessel is sunk stranded or abandoned in a harbour or in the approach to a harbour, section 252 Merchant Shipping Act 1995 gives the authority power to remove or destroy the vessel.

Certain harbour authorities are also able to rely on section 57 of the Piers, Docks and Harbour Clauses Act 1847. This allows the removal of unfit vessels at the expense of the owner, which can be recovered through sale of the vessel in certain circumstances.

Where the vessel itself does not pose a direct risk, but its owner owes outstanding harbour dues, harbour authorities may consider the use of Section 44 of the Piers, Docks and Harbour Clauses Act 1847 which gives rights to detain and sell a vessel to recover outstanding dues.

The underlying legislative background is complex, and in exercising any statutory power, harbour authorities need to be very careful to ensure that the circumstances of the vessel and the reasons for removal are aligned to the purpose that the power was granted for. It’s vital that good records are kept.

Abandonment

If a vessel is truly abandoned then the owner of the land or harbour may dispose of the vessel as the true owner has shown that it no longer wishes to assert title, for example under section 252 Merchant Shipping Act 1995 (see above). Abandonment can be difficult to prove but if a harbour authority uses the process under section 252, which provides for advance notice of a disposal, the risk of a claim by the owner can be managed.

Contract law

The provision of mooring services in exchange for payment is generally a contractual arrangement between the vessel owner and the harbour owner. If a harbour owner can identify that the vessel owner has broken the terms of the contract, the owner can seek damages including the costs of removal of the vessel, through the courts. Action may be taken against the vessel owners, or potentially in rem i.e. against the vessel itself. Having a written contract is not essential for a contractual claim to be brought, however can provide a range of benefits including making it simple to dispose of a vessel and reclaim the costs.

Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977

Harbour owners could also look to the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977. This provides a straightforward mechanism whereby a harbour owner may obtain the legal power to sell a vessel. However care will need to be taken and reasonable efforts made to trace the vessel owner, and take care to properly followed the process so as not to be liable to the vessel owner.

Use of Admiralty Court

In some circumstances it is sensible to use the protection of the Admiralty Court to authorise a sale and if relevant to deal with the proceeds of sale.

The assumption of rights and responsibilities over a third party’s property brings with it a range of risks (and potentially an ongoing duty of care) and should not be taken lightly. The risks and the practical issues also need to be carefully considered in the light of the likely returns. However, as long as harbour authorities can demonstrate that proper care is taken to ensure that all legal and procedural requirements are met, the law offers a variety of solutions.