The Supreme Court has answered the questions raised with regard to the interpretation of several sections of the Major Ports Act, 1963.
A Supreme Court bench comprising Justice R. F. Nariman, Justice Navin Sinha and Justice Indira Banerjee gave all the answers to the issues raised by the Kerala High Court in its Judgment.
Earlier the bench comprising Justice R.K. Agrawal and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud referred the matter to a larger bench while hearing several petitions against the order passed by the Kerala High Court with regards to the issue of liability for the payment of Ground Rent on the containers offloaded from the ships at the Cochin Airport.
The bench has answered the following questions with regards to the issue:
- Whether in the interpretation of the provision of Section 2(o) of the MPT Act, the question of title of goods, and the point of time at which title passes to the consignee is relevant to determine the liability of the consignee or steamer agent in respect of charges to be paid to the Port Trust;
The point of time at which title to the goods passes to the consignee is not relevant to determine the liability of the consignee or steamer agent in respect of charges to be paid to the Port Trust.
- Whether a consignor or a steamer agent is absolved of the responsibility to pay charges due to a Port Trust, for its services in respect of goods which are not cleared by the consignee, once the bill of lading is endorsed or the delivery order is issued;
- Whether a steamer agent can be made liable for payment of storage charges/demurrage, etc. in respect of goods which are not cleared by the consignee, where the steamer agent has not issued a delivery order; if so, to what extent;
For 2 and 3
The bill of lading being endorsed by the steamer agent is different from the bill of lading being endorsed by the owner of the goods. In the first case, the endorsement leads to delivery; in the second case, the endorsement leads to passing of title. For the reasons mentioned in the judgment, both stages are irrelevant in determining who is to pay storage charges – we have held that upto the point that the Port Trust takes charge of the goods, and gives receipt therefor, the steamer agent may be held liable for Port Trust dues in connection with services rendered qua unloading of goods, but that thereafter, the importer, owner, consignee or their agent is liable to pay demurrage charges for storage of goods;
- What are the principles which determine whether a Port Trust is entitled to recover its dues, from the steamer agent or the consignee; and
Until the stage of landing and removal to a place of storage, the steamer’s agent or the vessel itself may be made liable for rates payable by the vessel for services performed to the vessel. Post landing and removal to a place of storage, detention charges for goods that are stored, and demurrage payable thereon from this point on, i.e. when the Port Trust takes charge of the goods from the vessel, or from any other person who can be said to be owner as defined under section 2(o), it is only the owner of the goods or other persons entitled to the goods (who may be beneficially entitled as well) that the Port Trust has to look to for payment of storage or demurrage charges.
- While the Port Trust does have certain statutory obligations with regard to the goods entrusted to it, whether there is any obligation, either statutory or contractual, that obliges the Port Trust to destuff every container that is entrusted to it and return the empty containers to the shipping agent.
The answer to question number 5 is really in two parts:
first, as to whether carrying goods in a container would make any difference to the position that only the owner of the goods or person entitled to the goods is liable to pay for demurrage;
And second, as to whether the Port Trust is obliged to destuff containers that are entrusted to it and return empty containers to the shipping agent. The answer to the first question is contained in paragraphs 45 to 51 of our judgment. The answer to the second question is that a container which has to be returned is only a receptacle by which goods that are imported into India are transported. Considering that the container may belong either to the consignor, shipping agent, ship-owner, or to some person who has leased out the same, it would be the duty of the Port Trust to destuff every container that is entrusted to it, and return destuffed containers to any such person within as short a period as is feasible in cases where the owner/person entitled to the goods does not come forward to take delivery of the goods and destuff such containers. What should be this period is to be determined on the facts of each case, given the activities of the port, the number of vessels which berth at it, together with the volume of goods that are imported. While it does not lie in the mouth of the Port Trust to state that it has no place in which to keep goods after they are destuffed – as in the facts in the present case – yet a court may, in the facts of an individual case, look into practical difficulties faced by the Port Trust. This may lead to the “short period” in the facts of a particular case being slightly longer than in a case where a port is less frequented, and goods that are stored are lesser in number, given the amount of space in which the goods can be stored.
-India Legal Bureau