Default Judgment Under in Rem Proceedings: Is Your Claim Well Founded?
Itiro Corporation BVI v The Owner and/or Demised Charterers of The Ship or Vessel “ANGELIC GLORY  HKCA 1865
In this recent decision, the Court of Appeal (comprising of the Hon Kwan VP and G Lam JA) (“CA”) allowed the Plaintiff’s appeal of the decision of the Admiralty Judge in disallowing part of the claims in the Plaintiff’s application for judgment in default of acknowledgment of service under Order 75, rule 21 of the Rules of High Court. In doing so, CA provided valuable insights on the application of the “well-founded” threshold under Order 75, rule 21.
This firm acted for the successful appellant (the Plaintiff) in this case.
The Plaintiff was the charterer of the ship or vessel “Angelic Glory” (“Vessel”) under a charterparty dated 7 March 2019 (“Angelic Glory Charterparty”).
On 12 November 2020, the Plaintiff commenced in rem proceedings against the Vessel. The Defendants failed to acknowledge service of the writ in rem of the Plaintiff. On 3 March 2021, the Plaintiff filed a notice of motion under Order 75, rule 21 for judgment in default of acknowledgment of service. The Admiralty Judge allowed all the claims of the Plaintiff except for, inter alia, the claim for the difference in the hire rate (“Claim”) between the Angelic Glory Charterparty and an addendum thereto signed in September 2019 (“Addendum”).
It is the Plaintiff’s case that:
(1) Angelic Glory Charterparty incorporated the terms of an earlier charterparty for a sister vessel “Angelic Peace” dated 31 January 2019 (“Angelic Peace Charterparty”). The recap of Angelic Peace Charterparty stated that the Angelic Peace Charterparty was on the same terms as an earlier charterparty of the Vessel entered in 2015 (“2015 Charterparty”), save that, among other things, Clause 63 of the 2015 Charterparty was altered to allow the carriage of sugar cargo. By mistake, an unamended 2015 Charterparty was attached to the recap of the Angelic Glory Charterparty (“Angelic Glory Recap”).
(2) The common intention of the parties was that Angelic Glory Charterparty incorporated the Angelic Peace Charterparty, including the provision in its recap which made sugar a permitted cargo under the Angelic Glory Charterparty.
(3) In breach of the Angelic Glory Charterparty, the Defendants declared in August 2019 that sugar was not a permitted cargo and alleged that carriage of sugar cargo would require an enhanced rate of hire. The plaintiff was left with no alternative but signed the Addendum which provided for an enhanced rate. The Addendum was unenforceable for want of consideration or economic duress.
In support of its case, the Plaintiff provided, by way of affidavit, copies of the relevant charterparties, skype exchanges of the parties’ brokers, a witness statement of the Plaintiff’s broker in respect of mistaken attachment of the 2015 Charterparty to the Angelic Glory Recap and the email exchanges in August 2019.
In the first instance, the Admiralty Judge accepted that the material clause of the Angelic Peace Charterparty was amended to allow carriage of sugar cargo and that there was a reference in the Angelic Glory Recap to the Angelic Peace Charterparty. His Lordship was of the view that the said reference could not be divorced from the unamended 2015 Charterparty (which did not allow sugar cargo) attached to the Angelic Glory Recap. Thus, His Lordship thought that the Claim was “at best arguable”. Accordingly, the learned judge dismissed the Claim because he was not satisfied the same was well founded.
The Plaintiff appealed the said decision on the grounds that (1) the judge erred in law in applying the “well founded” threshold in Order 75 rule 21(7); and (2) the judge was plainly wrong in failing to hold that the plaintiff’s evidence met the “well founded” threshold.
The Plaintiff submitted that the appropriate standard of evidence required in this context is “prima facie evidence” to substantiate the allegations in the statement of claim, and that such supporting evidence need not be definitive or conclusive. The Plaintiff contended that the judge erred in law in requiring the plaintiff to prove its allegations by a standard higher than prima facie evidence.
CA explained that the specific purpose of the “well founded” requirement is to “ensure the default judgment does not compromise the rights of any other party who may have an in rem claim against the arrested vessel which is to be sold and the proceeds paid into court”.
CA did not consider it necessary or appropriate to put a glossing of the words “well founded”, as their meaning in this context is quite clear. However, CA referred to the decision of the Federal Court of Malaysia in The Fordeco Nos 12 and 17  1 MLJ 449 concerning equivalent Malayasia provisions, which referred to the meaning of “well-founded” as “based on good evidence, having a foundation in fact or reason”. CA accepted that this seemed to be a working definition of the words “well founded”.
On the totality of the evidence, CA was satisfied that there was a well-founded claim that it was the common intention of the parties that the Angelic Glory Charterparty incorporated the provision in the Angelic Peace Charterparty which made sugar a permitted cargo under the Angelic Glory Charterparty, and it was due to a clerical mistake that the unamended 2015 Charterparty was attached to the recap of the Angelic Glory Charterparty. There was a proper claim in law for rectification of the Angelic Glory Charterparty and the Addendum would not be enforceable for want of consideration and/or economic duress. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the first instance judge and allowed the Claim.
Sometimes, the simplest of questions are left unanswered by clear authority. It is perhaps for this reason that there is no clear guidance from case law on the meaning of the “well founded” threshold under Order 75, rule 21 (or similar requirements in other common law jurisdictions). This decision therefore provides a rare opportunity for questions concerning the meaning and application of the “well founded” threshold under Order 75, rule 21 to be determined at the appellant level.
Although CA did not consider it necessary to “to put a glossing” over the words “well founded”, this case illustrates that the threshold is not a high one. Specifically, the requirement “having a foundation in fact or reason” in the working definition adopted by CA is not exceptionally difficult to meet and does not, for example, seem to require the Court to satisfy that there is no arguable defence to the plaintiff’s claim. This makes sense because it is up to the defendant to enter appearance and put forward its defence if it wishes to dispute the claim. Having said that, the plaintiff still needs to put forward good evidence that are sufficient to substantiate the claims pleaded in its statement of claim.