Summary of the 108th session of the IMO’s Legal Committee (LEG 108)

By Hendrike Kühl, IUMI Policy Director

The Legal Committee (LEG 108) met virtually as well as hybrid with a limited number of delegates present in person at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters in London. The 108th session took place from 23-30 July 2021. The meeting was chaired by Volker Schöfisch from Germany assisted by his Vice-Chair, Gillian Grant from Canada. This was the last session chaired by Mr Schöfisch. He will be succeeded by Ms Grant who was elected Chair of the Legal Committee. The newly elected Vice-Chair is Ivane Abashidze of Georgia. IUMI was in attendance with Charles Fernandez and Hendrike Kühl. Key issues of interest included:

Abandonment of seafarers

The Committee noted the alarming increase in the numbers of abandoned seafarers reported to the IMO/International Labour Organization (ILO) joint database on abandonment of seafarers. From 1 January 2020 to 1 April 2021, 111 new cases had been reported, with 85 cases in 2020 and 26 cases in the first quarter of 2021. Around 18 cases reported since 1 January 2020 were related to consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic which has complicated the seafarer crew change situation. In the three months leading up to LEG 108, a further 27 cases were reported, bringing the total number of new cases this year to 53. 

The Committee reminded Member States of relevant resolutions on provision of financial security in cases of abandonment and international cooperation to address seafarer challenges; the recommended crew change protocols and the maritime human rights due diligence toolkit. Member States were encouraged to assist with the ongoing crew change crisis. The Committee noted that the issue of abandonment needed to be dealt with because of the rising numbers of abandonment cases.

Unified Interpretation on test for breaking the owner's right to limit liability under IMO conventions

The Committee approved the text of three draft resolutions on the Unified Interpretation on the test for breaking the owner's right to limit liability under IMO conventions. The drafts had been developed by a remote intersessional group in which IUMI was represented by Charles Fernandez, Chairperson of IUMI’s Legal & Liability Committee.

With regard to the forum for the adoption of the Unified Interpretation on the test, a majority of the delegates agreed that the Assembly was the forum for the adoption of the resolutions on the Unified Interpretation. The Committee also decided that, as there were different States Parties to the different conventions in force, separate resolutions, one for each relevant convention, would need to be adopted, hence three draft resolutions were approved.

Regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)

The Committee completed the regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and a gap analysis of 19 conventions emanating from the Legal Committee. The aim was to assess the degree to which the existing regulatory framework may be affected in order to address MASS operations. Both, the Maritime Safety (MSC) and Legal Committees, had concluded that the role and responsibilities of the master and the remote operator are high‑priority issues that must be addressed as a foundation for any further work. Some specific legal terms must also be considered in the context of harm caused by autonomous technology, such as the concepts of "fault", "negligence" and "intention".

This concludes the first step to determine how the introduction of autonomous ships is going to affect IMO's regulatory framework. Going forward, the Legal Committee will work together with MSC and Facilitation (FAL) Committees to adjust IMO treaties so they become ready for the introduction of MASS.

Measures to assess the need to amend liability limits

The Committee agreed to a new output which addresses the development of measures to transparently assess whether there is a need to amend liability limits. Australia will conduct informal intersessional work taking into account concerns raised in relation to the new output. No amendment to the liability limits was requested in the proposal.