A judge has appealed to a far north Queensland council and an Australian shipping company to settle differences outside court after declaring a multimillion-dollar bill issued by the local authority invalid.
Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) issued 253 default maritime fee invoices totalling over $66 million to Sea Swift on December 21 last year, giving them seven days - over the Christmas period - to appeal.
But Brisbane Supreme Court Justice Peter Applegarth found the decision to impose the fee for the period from April 2015 to June 2018 was beyond the power conferred on the council.
Declaring the invoices invalid, he appealed for an "early mediated resolution" before more money is spent on litigation saying legal costs to date must be enormous.
"The remarkable and admirable citizens of these communities, like the shipping company that services their communities, can spend their finite financial resources on better things than lawyers and litigation funders," Justice Applegarth said in a judgment handed down on Monday.
His encouragement to mediate was not intended to deprive lawyers or work or the council's litigation funder of its slice of any eventual court award.
"It is intended to ensure that the parties’ financial resources are preserved; in Sea Swift’s case so it can deploy its resources on servicing the communities for an affordable price, and in the case of TSIRC on the welfare of the remarkable people that it governs."
The 15 council owned and operated barge ramps and finger jetties are the primary means by which fuel, food, passengers and general cargo are transported to and from the 15 islands the TSIRC governs.
Operators like Sea Swift, which has a valid permit and pays maritime charges, are required to report their use in a prescribed form so the council can accurately calculate and invoice for fees.
The DMF regime as it was called and the manner of its calculation was not the subject of any council resolution.
Sea Swift supplied 120,000 documents including logbooks for the council to examine the accuracy of the company self-reporting after a Federal Court application.
Council lawyers issued invoices for $66,543,146 with a letter of demand to Sea Swift at 11.13pm on December 21.
The invoices did not reflect the information that was known to the TSIRC and its lawyers about the actual number of stops on each island each month, the duration of each stop, the amount of cargo discharged, landed or trans-shipped, or the nature of the cargo.
Justice Applegarth appealed for a quick resolution saying it will be up to the Federal Court to decide on the disputed 253 alleged instances of inaccurate self-reporting by Sea Swift and standard maritime fees the company owes because of under-reporting its use of council facilities.