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CTT Container detention fees likely to become a bigger pressure point

As many readers would be aware, from 1 August 2012, several container shipping lines have reduced the “free” container time from 10 days to 7 days.  The CBFCA and the VTA have already expressed their significant concern regarding the move and the likely associated costs for the entire supply chain.

The move by the lines comes after their “winning” outcome in a recent decision (“Cosco Decision”) by the District Court of NSW in March 2012, whereby it was held that container detention fees charged by Cosco Shipping (“Cosco”) and its Australian agent, Five Star Shipping and Agency Company (“Five Star”) were enforceable as against a freight forwarding company. An article regarding the Cosco Decision was recently published in the Shipping Australia Journal for Winter 2012 (“Journal”). The editorial in the same edition of the Journal welcomed the Cosco Decision in a way which suggested that the issue of the enforceability of such container detention fees had been conclusively determined and would be welcomed by all parties.

However, to declare that the issue of container detention charges is now fully settled in Australia after this decision may not be entirely accurate. Indeed the substantive article on the Cosco Decision in the Journal acknowledged that the decision depended on the specific facts of the case and that whether certain fees will be enforceable depends on the individual contracts governing the relationship between the parties.

It must also be emphasised that the decision would not necessarily be welcomed by all parties in the industry – including those who pay such fees which represent significant and often unexpected additional costs in the supply chain. Such fees also represent a significant risk for freight forwarders and customs brokers who bear the fees in the first instance where the fees arise from the failure by their customers to return the containers in the permitted “free” time and where customers will not or cannot pay the fees. In those cases it is predominantly the freight forwarders and customs brokers (named as consignees on the Ocean Bill of Lading/Sea Waybills) who bear the fees pursuant to their shipping and other agreements with the shipping companies and their Australian agents.
It needs also to be remembered that the prevailing practices and levels of the detention fees have yet to be subject to a specific independent review. Such a review of the practices and the fees would be intriguing. Australia’s biggest exports are empty containers being returned overseas and empty container parks are notoriously full – which suggests that there are readily available replacements for any that are returned “late”. At the same time, the availability and size of empty container parks, their ownership and relationship to their lines would also be relevant to any such inquiry. All of those factors feed into consideration whether the quantum of fees and their collection are reasonable (even if enforceable)

Whilst the Costco Decision was referred to in an earlier Update as well as discussed during recent CBFCA State Conventions, given the subsequent commentary and the recent development of the issue, it may be worth revisiting the Cosco Decision...  Read more...Download full PDF

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