Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly


Andrew Tettenborn*

This article traces the recent history of the maritime lien in English law, and asks how far the institution continues to be justified in the twenty-first century. It traces the rise of the parallel statutory right of ship arrest, compares it to the maritime lien, and reaches the counter-intuitive conclusion that, despite its traditional place in maritime law, the special rights attaching to the latter are difficult to justify. Its only contemporary advantage is the protection it affords some seafarers, which could be provided in other ways. Otherwise, there is a good case for simply abolishing it and leaving maritime claimants to their statutory rights of arrest.

1. Introduction

The maritime lien may look like an admiralty curiosity, but has a good deal to tell us about law more generally. For non-specialists, the maritime lien we are talking of here is a special instance of the more general right to arrest a ship for a maritime claim (itself a feature peculiar to Admiralty1). It protects four specific kinds of claim that give rise to a right of arrest—bottomry, salvage, mariners’ wages and collision damage—by giving the beneficiary a super-preference through the medium of an overriding security interest in the vessel involved.2
As a security available to claimants, the maritime lien is to say the least idiosyncratic: certainly so to a non-maritime lawyer. The institution hangs awkwardly between contract and tort. It is sometimes consensual, arising from an agreement—for example, in the case of wages, and also most cases of salvage.3 But it does not need to be: the underlying security interest can equally well be engendered by a tort (as in the case of the collision lien) or out of an unjust enrichment claim (as with non-contractual salvage). Once attached, it is secret and indeed unregistrable. Despite this, it nevertheless binds the vessel even in


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