Priority given to payment of docking and moorage fees over claims in respect of wages
Remuneration for use of public property
Precedence of guarantees
RULING Nº 470/2001
24 of October of 2001
Creditors' ranking for payment of their claims out of the proceeds of the sale of a specific item of property - a vessel - must be determined in accordance with Article 578 of the Commercial Code.
The solution resulting from application of Article 578 is not arbitrary, nor does it lack sufficient objective foundation. It reflects the priority given to payment of docking and moorage fees over claims in respect of wages. These fees correspond to services and costs attributable to keeping a vessel in a harbour and are inherent in its normal use. This legislation is also consistent with the principle that Portugal is a democratic state based on the rule of law, enshrined in Article 2 of the Constitution, in particular as regards the rule of law, together with the principle of confidence in the law.
Six Ukrainian nationals, in their capacity as the crew of the vessel "Lanzheron", which had docked in a Portuguese harbour and had been impounded, had filed claims for overdue wages, on the basis of their employment contracts, against the company Old Navy Lda., seizure and sale of whose property had been ordered.
In this specific case the Constitutional Court was asked to decide whether, regarding certain preferential claims on the vessel, the provisions of Article 578.4 and 578.6 of the Commercial Code (included in the chapter on "Creditors' preferential claims and mortgages") were constitutional. The applicants argued that, as a general rule, there must be strict equality between a ship's crew and all other employees. They also maintained that, in comparison with all other claims deriving from employment contracts held by other employees also subject to specific working arrangements, the system provided for in these paragraphs of the Commercial Code did not allow strict equality.
The Constitutional Court noted that, as a result of the ranking determined in Article 578 of the Commercial Code, sums due to the harbour authority in respect of docking and moorage fees took precedence over crews' claims in respect of wages. These sums, on which the law conferred a payment preference, were intended as remuneration for use of public property - harbour facilities - and were a direct consequence of normal use of the property - the vessel - against which a lien was granted. This system, which had the result of giving this tangible guarantee precedence over that deriving from either the Civil Code or the Commercial Code in respect of debts arising from employment relations, put into practice certain principles underlying the civil-law provisions governing the ranking of claims: first, the priority given to certain preferential claims of public authorities; second, the principle whereby certain expenses incurred for the maintenance or use of the property against which the lien was granted must be paid first, taking precedence over other preferential claims.
The Court consequently found that the legislation under consideration was not unconstitutional. This decision endorsed the priority given to payment of certain docking and moorage fees and expenses incurred by a harbour authority over crews' claims in respect of wages. Since the general principle that employees' wage-related claims took absolute precedence did not exist in Portuguese law, there was no inequality that might be reprehensible from a constitutional standpoint between members of a ship's crew and all other workers.