Out-Law News

Legal differences noted between UK bans Russian aircraft vessels

The obligations placed on airport operators by the UK government’s ban on Russian aircraft are not as tough as those faced by harbour authorities, according to one legal expert.

Earlier this month, ministers announced that it was a criminal offence for planes owned or chartered by Russians to enter UK airspace, as part of a package of sanctions and other measures taken against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. The Department for Transport (DfT) said the new ban would address the "grey area” of private jets that are registered in a third country being chartered by wealthy Russians.

Airport operators are now able to direct pilots in command of Russian aircrafts whether to take off or not or order them not to land. It is not yet clear from DfT guidance why or when an airport should give such directions.

Francis Tyrrell of Pinsent Masons said the government’s approach to defining a Russian aircraft mirrored its definition of a Russian vessel, following earlier action to ban ships that are owned, controlled, chartered or operated by persons connected with Russia from UK ports. That ban also applies to ships registered in Russia or that fly the flag of Russia.

But Tyrrell said the new responsibilities placed on airports contrasted with those imposed on harbour authorities. “Although airport operators must comply with any direction given to them by the secretary of state for transport, unlike harbour authorities it is not an offence for the airport operator to allow access in a general sense. Airport operators are not in effect obliged to verify the aircraft’s provenance to the extent that harbour authorities are now expected to do for ships.” he said.

“On the other hand, harbour authorities, harbour masters and pilots are at risk of prosecution if they allow access to Russian vessels, and the DfT has made it clear that it is for the harbour authorities to do all the necessary due diligence to establish whether a vessel has links to Russia. In parallel harbour authorities are also have a statutory duty to accept ships that are not caught by the sanctions, so they are in a difficult position either way,” Tyrrell added.

“Although the government has said that it will support UK ports in identifying relevant ships, its approach does not appear to recognise that the harbour authorities have little contact with anyone other than the ship’s agents, who themselves may not know all the details of ownership, for example. Added to this the government has recently reaffirmed that it is for the harbour authorities to satisfy themselves,” Tyrrell said.

Since the start of the invasion last month, the UK government has announced sanctions targeted at the majority of Russia’s financial system. Last week, ministers said they will prevent Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, from clearing payments in sterling. The UK’s sanctions list now contains more than 500 Russian individuals, entities and their subsidiaries – including 13 of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs.

New trade sanctions will prevent all UK exports of aviation or space-related technology to Russia, including related services such as insurance, and a wider ban will remove Russian companies from the London insurance market – the world’s largest commercial insurance centre.

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