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Yacht crew should be aware that they are vulnerable to unfair criminalisation just like other maritime professionals. Saffiyah Khalique reports
The criminalisation of seafarers has long been a concern, and this has only grown in recent times. A 2019 Nautilus Federation report found that nearly 90% of seafarers said they were worried about the criminalisation of maritime professionals, showing the overwhelming impact of the issue.
Seafarers have been prosecuted in situations involving, for example, marine pollution and ISPS Code violations, but there are also concerning cases in which acts that previously would have been considered a matter of negligence or incompetence are treated as crimes.
In serious situations, seafarers have been made scapegoats for accidents as authorities, shipping companies, insurers and the public, all seeking someone to blame.
How yacht crew can protect themselves
Download the Nautilus Fair Treatment app
The Union's number one recommendation is to download the Nautilus Fair Treatment app.
The app was launched as part of the Union's campaign against the criminalisation of seafarers. It includes offline access to guidelines on your rights in the event of an incident and ways to access other support services such as the Nautilus 24/7 helpline , the worldwide network of lawyers and the Nautilus Federation JASON scheme.
It provides an incident reporting form for recording personal notes on incidents as they happen and allows members to type notes, save images and even voice recordings using the phone's microphone. All data can be stored offline on the phone for personal use.
It is important that members contact the Union as soon as they suspect they are about to be approached by maritime authorities in connection with an alleged breach of the law. The earlier Nautilus is informed, the more effective intervention we can make to ensure that members' rights are adhered to
If the issue progresses members can also provide more information including their membership number, ship and employer and send the report directly to the Union when the phone has internet access.
Know your rights
If you are approached by a law enforcement authority, remember:
• Contact Nautilus immediately before making a statement (if possible)
• Cooperate with the authorities as far as you are able, but do not incriminate yourself
• Be prepared to take time out if necessary
• At all times seek independent legal or technical advice if you are unsure of the situation
• Never be afraid to politely ask any official what their powers are and the purpose of the investigation
• If you find yourself in a situation where it may look as though someone suspects you of a criminal offence, then seek immediate legal advice so that you do not prejudice your position
• No attempt should ever be made to provide false information to investigating authorities nor should documents onboard a vessel be 'lost' or 'destroyed'. Such actions could get you into serious trouble
Nautilus advises members to speak to fellow officers and crew onboard their vessels about the protections that the Union can provide them with in the superyacht industry. Non-members need to be aware that they must join the Union in advance of any issue occurring that requires our services.
Rapid response is key
Nautilus director of Legal Services Charles Boyle stresses that early action is extremely helpful in cases of unfair criminalisation: 'It is important that members contact the Union as soon as they suspect they are about to be approached by maritime authorities in connection with an alleged breach of the law,' he says.
'The earlier Nautilus is informed, the more effective intervention we can make to ensure that members' rights are adhered to, particularly under the relevant local law and the IML/ILO Fair Treatment Guidelines. Time is of the essence in these matters, and members should contact us immediately for advice, before making any statement to the authorities.'
Previous Nautilus yacht cases
In July 2017, there was an alarming increase in the number of seafarers being summoned to court in the South of France. This often occurred at extremely short notice.
Nautilus members that were summoned at the time were provided with Union support from the Nautilus 24/7 helpline and a lawyer from our global network of maritime specialists.
Some members were called to court for anchoring in prohibited areas, despite weather conditions dictating that the chosen anchoring position was the only safe place.
Other members, particularly masters, were being investigated and made court appearances for the actions of their subordinates.
Malpractice can also result in withdrawal of an officer's Certificate of Competency. In criminal cases, punishments can extend to hefty fines and custodial sentences.
Pressure from owners
Owners or guests can often exert pressure on masters to breach rules with the promise that they will cover any punitive fines and this same pressure can be felt by other officers and crew members. The Nautilus Federation survey found that 51% of seafarers fear being criminalised as a scapegoat for a third party.
However, Nautilus warns against accepting these assurances – on safety grounds, of course, but also because these promises are likely to disappear once it is realised the fines can exceed €10,000.