Assisting Persons in Distress - Obligations and Indemnities

07/07/2015 | North

2014 and 2015 have seen great movements of migrants by sea, primarily in Southeast Asia and across the Mediterranean. Providing necessary assistance to these people is no different to search and rescue operations following fire or shipwreck.

By the immemorial custom of the sea, mariners have always been obliged to assist anyone in distress. This obligation is now set out in the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which places the legal obligation upon the Master:

“The Master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so”.

The 1982 International Convention on the Law of the Sea mirrors these obligations and also says that the Master should not endanger the assisting ship, its crew or passengers.

The 2006 amendments to SOLAS add:

“This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality of or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found.”

Signatories of SOLAS are obliged to cooperate to ensure that masters of ships providing assistance are released from their obligation with minimum further deviation and to arrange disembarkation as soon as reasonably practicable.

Search and rescue is generally a “reasonable deviation” and should be permitted under any charterparty.

Following search and rescue operations, the assisting vessel sometimes claim against the owners or insurers of the distressed vessel but there is no legal basis for this. In the majority of cases the assisting vessel should make a claim on their own P&I policy.

North’s Rule 19(8) Persons in Distress provides indemnity for additional expenses incurred by our Members in proceeding to the assistance or search for persons in distress and the reasonable expenses in helping and landing such persons.The indemnity is limited to Member’s net loss, over and above expenses that would otherwise have been incurred.

North has recently published a Loss Prevention Briefing entitled Migrants at Sea which deals with this subject in more depth. This can be read here.