Ships that Changed the Law - The Torrey Canyon Disaster

The Hon Justice Steven Rares 05 October 2017

  RTF version, 330 kb

Steven Rares*

1.  On Saturday 18 March 1967, at about 8:50am, Torrey Canyon, on route from Kuwait to Wales, ran aground on Pollard’s Rock between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles.  She was a vessel of firsts:  a first generation cape size supertanker of 297 metres l.o.a., and her grounding was the world’s first major oil tanker disaster.  And from the consequences of her wreck off the Cornish coast, 50 years ago, emerged the first international regime on liability and compensation for oil pollution damage.

2.  Torrey Canyon was a truly ‘international’ vessel.  The tanker was owned by the Bermudian Barracuda Tanker Corporation, which was part owned by American Union Oil Corporation, and she was flagged in Liberia.  Her master was an Italian, Pastrengo Rugiati, and she had an Italian crew.  She was on charter to British Petroleum, then partially owned by the British Government, and was insured or covered by P & I Clubs in Britain and the United States.  During the oil boom of the 1960s Torrey Canyon had been “jumbosized” by Sasebo Heavy Industries, a Japanese yard, to double her capacity[1].  On the fateful voyage she was carrying a cargo of 120,000 tons of crude oil for discharge at the Milford Haven oil refinery in Wales[2].

3.  On the day before the grounding, Capt Rugiati had calculated that, because of her laden draft, Torrey Canyon had to enter Milford Haven harbour on the high tide before 23:00 on 18 March or wait about another week until the tide would again be high enough for her to enter.  Before retiring for the night, the master had set a course that would have taken Torrey Canyon clear of the Scilly Isles.  He left her on autopilot, but strong currents overnight pushed the ship to the north and east and the chief officer altered her course towards the north.  When Capt Rugiati awoke he saw that the Scilly Isles were unexpectedly off his port, not starboard bow[3].

4.  The master ordered a change of course but that took the ship, as he was aware, towards the Seven Stones reef that would be submerged by the tide.  He planned, and tried, to make adjustments to his course by ordering a hard swing to port but, at the critical time, the ship did not respond.  No doubt that was because he had left the ship on autopilot.  Only too late did he disengage the autopilot[4].

5.  The Guardian reported on the 50th anniversary that 90 year old Gladys Perkins, a resident of St Martin’s, the northern most Scilly Isle, recalled:  “I saw this huge ship sailing and I thought, he’s in rather close, I hope he knows what he’s doing…”, and the rest, as they say, is history or, as Ms Perkins candidly put it, “I just could not believe it.  They’d hit the Seven Stones [reef] in broad daylight.”[5]

6.  Torrey Canyon suffered damage to her keel over more than half her length.  And almost immediately about 30,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea[6].

7.  However, that was just the beginning of the disaster.  No oil spill of that size had ever occurred.  Several, never to be repeated, experiments in how to deal with the oil and the stranded ship followed.

8.  By nightfall on 18 March 1967, an oil slick 8 miles (or about 13 kilometres) long had spread from the ship’s ruptured tanks.  The next day the slick was 20 miles (about 32 kilometres) long[6].

9.  In the past, clearing up tiny coastal oil spills had involved using mixtures of solvents and emulsifiers.  Although they were described as detergents, in fact, these were highly toxic chemicals.  The British Navy began deploying these chemicals within 12 hours of the spill.  The Guardian’s correspondent, Patrick Barkham, writing at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster (24 June 2010), recalled that handily for BP, it manufactured the solvents and emulsifiers used in 1967 to clean up spills.  He wrote that the British Government warned that Torrey Canyon was “a bomb” and that, as one man involved in the clean-up operation put it,“BP were making a bomb, literally, both ways”[8].  In the 1960s responsible newspapers were called “journals of record” because they took pains accurately to report the facts.  In his 2010 piece, Barkham quoted from  a March 1967 contemporaneous report in the Guardian which stated[9]:

“BP, which had Torrey Canyon on charter but does not own her (and therefore disclaims any responsibility for the oil pollution) has sent all the detergent it can lay its hands on.”

10. As we now know, the excuse that BP was the lessee and not the owner of Deepwater Horizon did not work with President Obama in 2010 and is one demonstration of how Torrey Canyon changed the law[10].

11. Back to 19 March 1967.  The owners of the stricken oil carrier engaged Dutch experts who insisted that she could be salved.  The British Undersecretary for Defence (Navy), Maurice Foley MP, was reported initially as saying that there was “no question” of deliberately destroying the ship[11].  However, the clean-up operation ran into problems from the outset.  Large swathes of water looked like a bubble bath and the chemicals that produced this aesthetic effect were taking a heavy toll on bird and marine life.

12. Indeed, the use of detergents sent journalists into a metaphor frenzy.  A correspondent in The Times wrote:  “A small force of the Royal Navy is already spraying the oil with detergent to neutralise it.  The task is like trying to mop the Kensington Round Pond dry with a sponge”[12], while then 38 year old Dennis Barker, a Guardian reporter, wrote that the effect was “like trying to pick up quicksilver with boxing gloves”[13].

13. Another example of how things have changed is that on arriving at the railway platform at Penzance (a ferry port), Barker, who was sent to cover the story, encountered then Prime Minister Harold Wilson on his way to spend his Easter holiday on the Scilly Isles.  Barker, in 2010, told his colleague, Barkham, that Wilson “rather liked to be at the scene of the action”[14].  By Good Friday, 24 March 1967, the Prime Minister was and the stench from the pollution and clean-up materials had reached Land’s End.  Waves of oil reached the shore the next day.

14. On Easter Monday, the ship broke in two and almost all the 120,000 tonne cargo by that time had leaked into the ocean. 

15. Meanwhile, as his Prime Minister holidayed, Undersecretary Foley continued to leave responsibility for the salvage with the companies involved, saying that the Government “clearly … have no responsibility in law for what has happened”[15].  Remember, he had said at the outset that there was no question of deliberately destroying the ship.  Well, by Tuesday 28 March 1967 things had changed.  On that day, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force launched a full scale attack on the ship dropping 62,000lbs, or 28 tonnes, of bombs, about a quarter of which missed, and 5,200 gallons or about 23,500 litres of petrol on her[16].  The armed services also fired 11 rockets at the wreck and dropped large quantities of napalm on her.  The BBC reported that[16]:

“[d]espite direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.”

16.  To add insult to the British forces’ injury, the mission that day was called off when particularly high spring tides put out the flames.  The Home Office issued a disappointed statement acknowledging this set back, which ended by observing that: “We cannot say at this stage what the next step will be”[18].  However, the BBC reported on 29 March 1967[19]:

“It was decided at first light this morning to carry on bombing.  Holiday makers gathered on the cliffs to watch the towering column of flames and smoke which could be seen up to 100 miles away.”

17. Sadly, the British Government’s provision of this spectacle was to little avail.  In the end, the spilled unburnt oil created a 270 square mile (or about 700 square kilometres) slick that contaminated 120 miles of the Cornish coast and 50 miles of the coast of Normandy[20].  At the time, this was the biggest oil spill in history.  The clean-up efforts took months and reportedly cost the British and French Governments over USD16 million[21].

18. It may be a sign of changing times but the Australian Government did not seem to think of using the military in the same way to deal with the recent oil spills from the Montara platform on the Northwest shelf in 2009 or the Shen Neng 1 running aground in 2010 on the Great Barrier Reef.

19. The disaster of Torrey Canyon brought about changes in the law in a variety of ways.

The legal landscape at the time of the Torrey Canyon disaster

20. Affected parties, including the British and French Governments sought to make claims for compensation against those responsible, including Barracuda, the owners of Torrey Canyon.  But in the absence of an international compensation regime, they faced a myriad of legal hurdles[22].


21. First, it was necessary to make the claims where a court had jurisdiction to render an enforceable decision. The spill affected both coastal and international waters.  It caused damage in several countries and originated from a vessel with multinational connections.  The British Government issued a writ for damages on 4 May 1967 in the Admiralty Court in London that named Torrey Canyon’s sister ships, Sansinena and Lake Palourde, which Barracuda also owned[23].  However, because Torrey Canyon had eventually sunk there was a problem in arresting her.  As the former President of the Comité Maritime International, Patrick Griggs CBE, explained[24]:

In the context of establishing English jurisdiction, the loss of the ship itself was an immediate problem – though it was suggested that the presence of a lifeboat in Penzance, recovered from the ship, might be enough to found it. (This was never tested). The owners were a Bermudian company not directly amenable to English jurisdiction: but they did own two other tankers. However, claimants could reasonably assume that these two sister-ships would be kept well away from the UK, and so there seemed to be an insoluble jurisdictional problem.

22. Ultimately on 15 July 1967, the British Government arrested one of the sister ships, Lake Palourde, in Singapore. She was on a voyage from California to the Persian Gulf, but urgently required two coils of wire rope.  Her owners arranged to have the coils delivered outside the three mile limit, but when the ship reached the proposed rendezvous, there was no delivery ship.  So she proceeded into Singapore Harbour.  She had been in harbour only a few minutes when a British Government lawyer, accompanied by the Bailiff of the High Court of Singapore, appeared in a launch and boarded her.  The Bailiff affixed a warrant of arrest to the vessel’s main mast, thus impounding her[25].

23. On 20 July 1967, Lake Palourde was released after her insurer had provided a bond for USD8.4 million and Barracuda entered an appearance[26].   As the ship steamed toward the open sea, a launch with France’s charge d’affaires in Singapore, two lawyers representing the French Government, a High Court Bailiff and a policeman on board chased her but the pursuit ended unsuccessfully at the three mile limit[26].  France eventually established jurisdiction a year later by arresting Lake Palourde in Rotterdam[28].

24. In the event, Barracuda and the British Government agreed that proceedings should be heard in London and Barracuda submitted to English jurisdiction[29].

Common law claims

25. Secondly, even with the jurisdiction issue addressed, affected parties had limited legal avenues for claiming compensation. Civil actions for oil pollution were limited to common law claims in tort against the vessel owner or other responsible parties, which required proof of fault.  The first oil pollution case that reached the House of Lords, Southport Corporation v Esso Petroleum Co Ltd[30], demonstrated the difficulties that claimants would face in bringing an action in any of the primary causes of action – trespass, nuisance and negligence – following pollution of the coastline by an oil spill at sea.  Before I explain that decision, I should also note that any claimants were likely to be met with a very particular defence in respect of damages caused by oil from Torrey Canyon.

26. When a Colonel Wooton claimed damages for harm done by the leaked oil to plant and animal life on an English island that he leased, Barracuda’s lawyers wrote expressing sympathy but denying liability.  The lawyers said that even if owner’s liability could be established[31]:

“the majority of the oil was released by the bombing of the ship by the  British Government without the consent or connivance of the owners.”

27. The Southport case concerned a 680 ton oil tanker, Inverpool, that became stranded in an estuary following a defect in her steering gear.  The master discharged 400 tons of oil to lighten the tanker, an action he considered necessary to save the vessel and crew from danger.  The oil spill reached the Southport foreshore and caused extensive damage.  Southport sued the tanker’s owners and master, alleging that the deposit of oil on the foreshore was either a trespass to land, or a nuisance, or due to negligence.  Southport had pleaded negligent navigation as the only basis for its negligence claim.

28. Devlin J, at first instance, found that Southport could not succeed in any claim.  His Lordship found that, first, the defence of necessity answered any case in trespass and nuisance[32], and, secondly, Southport had failed to prove negligence against either the owners or the master[33].

29. However, his Lordship was not insensitive to Southport’s plight, and acknowledged the constraints of the common law in offering relief in such circumstances.  He said:

“At first sight, it may appear to be unreasonable that shipowners whose servants cause such damage in order to save their own property should not automatically have to pay for it. But Mr Nelson, for the defendants, submits that at common law there is no duty at all upon ships to avoid this type of damage. If Parliament considers that further legislation is necessary for the protection of the public, no doubt such legislation will be enacted. My duty is to apply the common law, and to examine therefore the causes of action upon which the plaintiffs rely.”[34]

30. In the Court of Appeal, Singleton and Denning LJJ, with Morris LJ dissenting, reversed the decision of Devlin J. Singleton LJ considered the claim on the basis of negligence, and did not consider nuisance or trespass.  He held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquiter applied and placed the burden of proof on the owners and the master to explain the cause of the faulty steering gear.  As they had failed to do so, he held that they were liable in negligence[35].

31. Denning LJ would have agreed with Singleton LJ if res ipsa loquiter applied, but he preferred to decide the negligence claim under the rule in The Merchant Prince[36], which shifted the burden of proof onto the defendant in “exceptional cases” where the vessel proved to be dangerous by its own showing.  Denning LJ held that the burden was on the defendants to prove inevitable accident[36]. He found[38]:

“Applying The Merchant Prince[39], we find here that the ship ran on to the revetment wall. If the steering gear was in order, that was plain negligence. The ship seeks to escape from this charge of negligence by saying that her steering gear had failed and she was out of control. But that is no answer unless she proves – and the legal burden is on her to prove – that it was no fault of hers that the steering gear had failed. She has not discharged that burden, or even attempted to discharge it. She is, therefore, liable.”

32. In addition, Denning LJ held that the trespass claim failed, because no physical act had been done directly against Southport’s land[40], as did the private nuisance claim, because the harm had to come from the use of land, not of the sea[41].  However, he considered that the discharge of oil could constitute a public nuisance for which the owners and master would be liable[42], unless they could show that such discharge was “an unavoidable necessity [that] was not attributable to their negligence”[43].  He found that, on the evidence, they had failed to do so.

33. The House of Lords overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision.  They found that, in the face of the necessity to discharge oil for the safety of the crew, neither trespass nor nuisance could succeed without some underlying negligence.  Southport had only pleaded negligent navigation against the master and had not alleged that the steering breakdown may have been due to lack of proper care or unseaworthiness. In their Lordships’ view, as Devlin J had determined that the master was not negligent, the vicarious liability allegations against the owners also had to fail[44].  Further, Lords Tucker and Radcliffe indicated their support for the conclusion of Denning LJ that there was no case for trespass on the facts[45].  Lord Radcliffe also said that neither the owners nor the master was responsible for private nuisance, and that the defence of necessity answered any possible claim of public nuisance[46].

British Government’s claims

34. Thus, the British Government’s causes of action against the owners of Torrey Canyon were for negligence and public nuisance.  Each claim required proof of negligence but this did not appear to be a problem in the circumstances, given the fault of Capt Rugiati.  However, as Griggs noted, it was not clear whether the crew were the servants of the registered owners or of the long-term charterers, a fact that might have given rise to issues of vicarious liability[46].

Limits to compensation

35. Thirdly, in England the owners of Torrey Canyon could limit liability at about £1.75 million, about a quarter of what the British and French Governments were seeking in compensation[48].  In addition, Guernsey, BP and several individuals had begun proceedings against Barracuda, or would shortly do so[49].  Thus, the maximum limitation fund would not go far in settling all these claims.

36. Eventually, on 11 November 1969 the Attorney-General, Sir Elwyn Jones, told the House of Commons that the claims of the British and French Governments had settled for £3 million, a sum that was inadequate to meet the loss and damage caused.  As Sir Elwyn told the House, at the very moment of his announcement, a diplomatic conference was taking place in Brussels to create a convention the aim of which was to improve the position of coastal states[50].

37. The Torrey Canyon disaster made evident that traditional legal remedies were inadequate to deal with the consequences of pollution from ships.  If claimants were left to pursue common law claims for compensation, based on the subjective fault of the ship, and to establish jurisdiction, either against a ship that had not sunk or, as was even then unusual, against a sister ship, they would not be likely to recover damages, or an adequate amount promptly or perhaps at all.  The complex problems presented by the Torrey Canyon spill demanded that a new international system be urgently developed.

The international response to the Torrey Canyon incident

38. The international law governing liability and compensation for damage caused by oil pollution radically transformed in the aftermath of Torrey Canyon with the entry into force of, first, the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage 1969 (CLC 1969) as amended by the Protocol of 1992 (CLC 1992) and, secondly, funds established under the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage 1971 (1971 Fund Convention) as amended by the Protocol of 1992 (1992 Fund Convention) and supplemented by the Protocol of 2003 to that Convention (2003 Protocol)[51].  The current fund is known as the 1992 Fund and the fund established by the 2003 Protocol is known as the Supplementary Fund[52].  The key objective of those treaties was to ensure adequate compensation for third parties who suffered loss or damage as a result of shipping incidents.

39. The CLC 1992 is given force of law in Australia by the Protection of the Sea (Civil Liability) Act 1981 (Cth), and the 1992 Fund Convention and certain provisions of the 2003 Protocol are given force of law by the Protection of the Sea (Oil Pollution Compensation Funds) Act 1993 (Cth) and three related Acts[53].

The scheme of the CLC 1969

40. The British Government swiftly called for a new international regime immediately following the Torrey Canyon incident and before the claims had been settled.  It submitted a Note to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), known at the time as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, appealing for it to consider, as a matter of urgency, changes in international maritime law and practice governing oil pollution.  The British argued that the incident had highlighted that the law relating to international shipping and oil pollution was inadequate and out of date[54].  They contended that[55]:

The scale of the Torrey Canyon disaster was unprecedented. The wreck of tankers on the high seas has not hitherto had such significant repercussions on the coast bordering those seas. As a consequence the international law governing such matters does not take adequately into account the interests of countries which may have no direct interest in a ship or its cargo but the territory of which may be affected by accident to the ship.

41. The IMO established a legal committee (that now independently continues in existence) charged with the task of producing an international convention that addressed issues of liability and compensation for oil pollution. At around the same time, the Comité Maritime International (CMI) also established the International Torrey Canyon Sub-Committee to work with the IMO on this project, and the CMI produced its own draft convention.[56] Both the IMO and CMI draft conventions were presented at the IMO International Conference on Marine Pollution Damage, held in November 1969 in Brussels, and from which emerged the CLC 1969. The CLC 1969 entered into force in 1975.

42. As we all know drafting by committee, especially one full of lawyers is anything but straightforward or fast.  Yet the 1969 CLC had a remarkably rapid gestation period.  The reason may lie in the following story of its genesis.  One source gave the following account[56]:

When the Torrey Canyon spilled its cargo of oil on the Scilly Isles in 1967 and it was realised that there was no international regime to determine who paid for the consequences of an accidental oil spill, Bill [Reynardson, vice-president of the CMI] got together with Lord Devlin [chair of the CMI International Sub-Committee] in his kitchen and drafted what became the Civil Liability Convention on which most international oil spill compensation law has been based since 1970.

43. But whatever the source of the provisions, whether the conference rooms of Brussels or Lord Devlin’s kitchen table, their nature was revolutionary in many respects. The purpose of the CLC 1969 was to create “uniform international rules and procedures for determining questions of liability and providing adequate compensation” to persons who suffered damage resulting from oil spills from ships[58].  It gave persons affected the advantages of immediate identification of the owner of the tanker as the person who was liable and created effective jurisdiction over that owner[59].

44. The CLC 1969 had the following key provisions:

  • it applied, first, to direct damage by pollution resulting from oil spills from laden tankers caused in the territory, including the territorial sea, of States parties, and, secondly, to make recoverable the cost of reasonable measures to prevent or minimise pollution damage (Art II);
  • both governments and other persons could  make claims (Art I(2));
  • it prohibited any claims being made against the shipowner for pollution damage otherwise than under the Convention (Art III(4));
  • it imposed strict liability on the shipowner at the time of the incident, with very limited exceptions (Art III(1)-(3)).
  • it retained a right for the owner, under certain conditions, to limit his liability to an amount linked to the tonnage of the vessel (Art V(1));
  • it imposed a system of compulsory liability insurance for tanker owners and coupled this with a right of claimants to take direct action against the insurer (Art VII).  And, in order to ensure the recoverability of compensation, flag States parties were to prevent ships of their flag from trading unless a certificate attesting to the vessel’s insurance or financial security had been issued[60].

45. The imposition of strict liability represented a complete reversal of the common law approach, which had required evidence of fault. As Måns Jacobsson, the former director of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds, noted, “in 1969 it broke new grounds in maritime law”[61].  The standard of liability was one of the key points of contention at the 1969 Brussels Conference.  The Report of the CMI International Sub-Committee, summarising the attitude of National Associations that opposed a new strict liability standard, had stated[62]:

By introducing the concept of strict liability, which is foreign to the law of the sea, one would risk upsetting the whole structure of private maritime law merely to deal with the problem of oil pollution, which does not call for exceptional treatment. The carriage of oil in bulk does not create the type of exceptional danger that justifies exceptional measures, as in the case of nuclear damage.

46. These provisions of the CLC 1969 were not only ground breaking but have proved enduring.  Since 1969, all IMO Conventions dealing with the consequences of oil pollution from ships have imposed strict civil liability on the shipowner and sometimes the ship’s crew, have included requirements for compulsory liability insurance and have conferred rights of direct action against insurers[63].

47. The scheme of imposing strict civil liability on shipowners for oil pollution from their vessels, that the CLC 1969 pioneered, has flowed into the sphere of criminal responsibility as well.  Shipowners, ships’ masters and crew now face criminal consequences for any oil pollution that is sourced to their vessels.

48. Australia has implemented the amended International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 known as MARPOL 1978[64], by enacting the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1983 (Cth)[65].    That Act creates a series of criminal offences of strict liability then provides for limited exceptions.  The principal strict liability offence arises under s 9(1B) of that Act which provides that the master, charterer and owner of a ship each commit an offence punishable on conviction by a fine not exceeding 20,000 penalty units or $4.2 million[66] if oil or an oily substance is discharged from a ship into the sea in the territorial sea of Australia and its exclusive economic zone, and, in the case only of an Australian registered ship, beyond the exclusive economic zone[66].

49. One recent example of the application of State law occurred after Pacific Adventurer discharged 270 tonnes of oil into the sea off Cape Moreton in March 2009.  In October 2011 the owners pleaded guilty to offences[68] and were fined a total of $1.2 million[69].

The scheme of the 1971 Fund Convention

50. The CLC 1969 was quickly followed, in Brussels, by the adoption of the 1971 Fund Convention, the second tier of the compensation scheme.  The 1971 Fund Convention entered into force in 1978.  It addressed two concerns, namely that, first, the amount of compensation under the CLC 1969 was likely in many cases not to be sufficient, and, secondly, were the burden on shipowners of providing full compensation under the CLC 1969, it would be too heavy, and some responsibility had to be shifted to the oil industry as a whole.  The main purpose of the 1971 Fund Convention was to enable the payment of additional compensation to claimants if the compensation available under the CLC 1969 was inadequate or unobtainable (Art 2).

51. The 1971 Fund Convention had the following relevant features:

  • the establishment of an international Fund financed by the oil industry and its administration by an intergovernmental organisation, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund 1971 (Arts 2, 10);
  • the provision of an additional source of compensation if the amount of damage suffered exceeded the owner’s liability under the CLC 1969, or the owner had a valid defence under the CLC 1969, or he or his insurers were unable to meet their liability (Art 4(1)(a)-(c));
  • the right of the shipowner or his insurer to be indemnified by the Fund for liability incurred under the CLC 1969 in excess of a set amount (Art 5);
  • an increase in the maximum amount payable per incident, including the amount paid by the shipowner and his insurer, to 60 million Special Drawing Rights (SDR) (USD81 million) (previously 30 million SDR or USD40.5 million) (Art 4(3))[70].

52. When the CLC 1969 and 1971 Fund Convention were agreed, States parties assumed that the limits of liability then settled would be practical, and hopefully, sufficient to cover disasters like the Torrey Canyon.  History has shown that such limits rapidly become out of date.  As Professors Nicholas Gaskell and Craig Forrest note[71]:

It seems as if each major disaster has provided evidence that the existing limits are not high enough; but when the limits are eventually increased, a further disaster shows that the new limits are also inadequate.

53. That has proved true.  The CLC 1992, the 1992 Fund Convention and the 2003 Protocol did not quell the subsequent perceptions of many that in today’s world the scope of their covers can and should be increased.

The success of the post-Torrey Canyon international regime

54. The swift transformation of the international maritime law regime governing oil pollution from ships from that applying immediately before the Torrey Canyon disaster to that four years after her grounding was quite remarkable.  And because of this there can be no doubt that Torrey Canyon was truly a ship that changed the law.

*     A judge of the Federal Court of Australia and an additional judge of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory.  The author acknowledges the assistance of his associate, Caitlin Healey-Nash, in the preparation of this paper.  The errors are the author’s alone.

     A paper presented at the Maritime Law Association of Australia and New Zealand 44th National Conference in Melbourne on 5 October 2017.

[1]    Grey Hall, ‘Torrey Canyon alerted the world to the dangers that lay ahead’, Professional Mariner, 28 March 2007 <>

[2]    Måns Jacobsson, ‘The Torrey Canyon fifty years on: the legal legacy’ (2013) 23 Journal of International Maritime Law 20, 20

[3]    Hall, above n 1

[4]    Ibid

[5]    Adam Vaughan, ‘Torrey Canyon disaster – the UK’s worst-ever oil spill 50 years on’, The Guardian (online), 18 March 2017 <>

[6]    Patrick Griggs CBE, ‘“Torrey Canyon”, 45 Years On: Have We Solved All the Problems?’ in Baris Soyer and Andrew Tettenborn (eds), Pollution At Sea: Law and Liability (Informa, London, 2012) 3, 3

[7]    Patrick Barkham, ‘Oil spills: Legacy of the Torrey Canyon’, The Guardian (online), 24 June 2010 <>

[8]    Ibid

[9]    Ibid

[10]           Transocean Ltd was the owner and later settled claims against it for about USD210 million.

[11]           Barkham, above n 7

[12]           “In peril from the sea”, The Times (of London), 20 March 1967, 1

[13]           Barkham, above n 7

[14]           Ibid

[15]           Ibi.

[16]           ‘Bombs rain down on the Torrey Canyon’, BBC, 29 March 1967 <>

[17]           Ibid

[18]           Ibid

[19]           Ibid

[20]           Griggs, above n 6, 3

[21]           Ann Blackwood Crain, ‘Comments: Troublesome Aspects of the SEDCO 135 Disaster: Has the Plight of the Transnational Pollution Victim Really Improved in the Wake of Torrey Canyon?’ (1980) 2 Houston Journal of International Law 387, 387

[22]           The only two relevant international conventions at this time dealt with limitation of shipowners’ liability, not compensation:  the International Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to the Limitation of the Liability of Owners of Sea-going Vessels 1924 and the International Convention Relating to the Limitation of the Liability of Owners of Sea-going Ships 1957.  These conventions became obsolete following the coming into force in most States of the Convention of Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims 1976 given force of law in Australia by the Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims Act 1989 (Cth).

[23]           Craig Vance Wilson, The Impact of the Torrey Canyon disaster on technology and national and international efforts to deal with supertanker generated oil pollution: an impetus for change? (University of Montana, 1973) 121

[24]           Griggs, above n 6, 5

[25]           Edward Cowan, Oil and Water (JB Lippincott, New York, 1968) 195-199, cited in Wilson, above n 23, 124-127

[26]           Ibid, 198

[27]           Ibid, 198

[28]           Wilson, above n 23, 127

[29]           Griggs, above n 6, 5

[30]           [1956] AC 218

[31]           Cowan, above n 25, 197-198

[32]           Southport Corporation v Esso Petroleum Co Ltd [1953] 3 WLR 773 at 779

[33]           Ibid at 782

[34]           Ibid at 775

[35]           Southport Corporation v Esso Petroleum Co Ltd [1954] 2 QB 182 at 193-195

[36]           [1892] P 179

[37]           Southport Corporation v Esso Petroleum Co Ltd [1954] 2 QB 182 at 199

[38]           Ibid at 201

[39]           [1892] P 179

[40]           Southport Corporation v Esso Petroleum Co Ltd [1954] 2 QB 182 at 196

[41]           Ibid

[42]           Ibid at 197

[43]           Ibid at 199

[44]           Esso Petroleum Co Ltd v Southport Corporation [1956] AC 218 at 237 per Earl Jowitt, at 239 per Lord Norman, at 241 per Lord Morton of Henryton, at 244 per Lord Radcliffe, at 244 per Lord Tucker

[45]           Ibid at 242 per Lord Radcliffe, at 244 per Lord Tucker

[46]           Ibid at 242 per Lord Radcliffe

[47]           Griggs, above n 6, 4

[48]           Statement of Sir Elwyn Jones QC MP, Attorney General to the House of Commons “Torrey Canyon” Settlement, House of Commons Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), vol 791, no 11 (11 November 1969).

[49]           Wilson, above n 23, 127

[50]           Ibid

[51]           International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, done at Brussels 18 December 1971 [1995] ATS 2;  Protocol to the International Convention on the Establishment of the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage of 18 December 1971, done at London 19 November 1976 [1995] ATS 3;  Amendments to the Limits of Compensation in the Protocol of 1992 to amend the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage 1971 done at London 18 October 2000 [2004] ATS 28

[52]           Protocol of 2003 to the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage 1992, done at London 16 May 2003 [2003] ATNIF 21.  The 2003 Protocol established the International Oil Pollution Compensation Supplementary Fund.

[53]           Protection of the Sea (Imposition of Contributions to Oil Pollution Compensation Funds – Customs) Act 1993 (Cth); Protection of the Sea (Imposition of Contributions to Oil Pollution Compensation Funds – Excise) Act 1993 (Cth); Protection of the Sea (Imposition of Contributions to Oil Pollution Compensation Funds – General) Act 1993 (Cth)

[54]           British Home Office, The Torrey Canyon (London, April 1967) 10 quoted in Albert E Utton, ‘Protective Measures and the “Torrey Canyon”’ (1968) 9(3) Boston College Law Review 613, 613

[55]           Note of the United Kingdom, ‘Pollution of the Sea by Oil: Problems Brought to Light by the Loss of the “Torrey Canyon”’, C/ES. III/3

[56]           Griggs, above n 6, 6

[57]           Herry Lawford, ‘Bill Birch Reynardson 1923-2017’, 31 August 2016 <>

[58]           CLC 1969, Preamble

[59]           B.J. Brooke-Smith, Aspects of Oil Pollution (Paper presented at Maritime Law Association of Australia and New Zealand Ninth Annual Conference, 4-9 July 1982, Singapore) 7

[60]           see further, ibid

[61]           Jacobsson, above n 2, 23

[62]           Working Group, Report to the International Subcommittee by its Working Group made after the meeting in Lisbon on February 29th and March 1st 1968 (Comitè Maritime International, Documentation III, 1968) 144-146

[63]           Jacobsson, above n 2, 23

[64]           Including the amendments effected by corrections through the Procès-Verbal of Rectification dated 13 June 1978 and the amendments made by the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 done at London on 17 February 1978 ([1988] ATS 29), other than corrections or amendments that have not entered into force for Australia.

[65]           However, the Act permits Australia’s States and Territories to make laws that create other offences in respect of discharges occurring within three nautical miles of the baseline of Australia’s territorial sea (see s 5(1)), and they have done so:  New South Wales (Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) s 15), Queensland (Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995 (Qld) s 26), South Australia (Protection of Marine Waters (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1987 (SA) s 8), Tasmania (Pollution of Waters by Oil and Noxious Substances Act 1987 (Tas) s 8), Victoria (Pollution of Waters by Oil and Noxious Substances Act 1986 (Vic) s 8; Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic) s 39(5)), Western Australia (Pollution of Waters by Oil and Noxious Substances Act 1987 (WA) s 8) and the Northern Territory (Marine Pollution Act 1999 (NT) s 14) have all enacted complementary legislation that generally mirrors the Commonwealth provisions but creates a separate offence of strict liability for any discharge of oil in waters within three nautical miles of the coast (eg, Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) s 15(1)).  Strict liability is imposed on each of the master and owner and the ship (in Queensland, the offence also applies to a crew member who caused or contributed to the discharge unless complying with instructions: Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995 (Qld) s 26(1)).  In New South Wales there are similar strict liability offences for a crew member or person involved in the operation or maintenance of the ship, or any person responsible for the discharge:  Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) ss 16(1)-(2), 17, with similar defences available (see, eg, Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) ss 18-20, Protection of Marine Waters (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1987 (SA) s 8(2)). Some States have also created defences for certain ships where the oil content of the effluent is less than a certain amount: see, eg, Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) ss 23-25; Pollution of Waters by Oil and Noxious Substances Act 1986 (Vic) s 8(4).  The penalties for such offences range between fines of $500,000 and four years imprisonment (Pollution of Waters by Oil and Noxious Substances Act 1987 (Tas) s 8(1)) for an individual and $10,000,000 for a corporation (Marine Pollution Act 2012 (NSW) s 15(1)(a)-(b)).

[66]           One penalty unit from 1 July 2017 equals AUD21.

[67]           There are limited defences available, namely, where the discharge was for the purchase of securing the safety of a ship or saving life at sea, was caused by unintentional damage and after all reasonable precautions had been taken to prevent or minimise the discharge, or was authorised for the purpose of combating specific pollution incidents (Protection of the Sea (Prevention from Pollution from Ships) Act 1983 (Cth) s 9(2), see also ss 9(4)).

[68]           Under s 26(1)(a) of the Transport Operations (Marine Pollution) Act 1995 (Qld)

[69]           R v Santos, Bluewind Shipping Ltd & Ors [2011] QDC 254

[70]           see further Crain, above n 21, 394; Jacobsson, above n 2, 24

[71]           Nicholas Gaskell and Craig Forrest, ‘Marine Pollution Damage in Australia: Implementing the Bunker Oil Convention 2001 and the Supplementary Fund Protocol 2003’ (2008) 27(2) University of Queensland Law Journal 104, 116

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