Shipping and International Trade at the Bar

In a nutshell

Shipping and trade work mostly centres upon contract and tort; English case law is awash with examples from the world of shipping. Barristers handle disputes arising from or concerning the carriage of goods or people by sea, air and land, plus all aspects of the financing, construction, use, insurance and decommissioning of the vessels, planes, trains and other vehicles that carry them.

There is often a complex international element to these cases, drawing in multiple parties – for example a wrecked vessel might be Greek-owned, Pakistani-crewed, Russian-captained, last serviced in Singapore, carrying forestry products from Indonesia to Denmark, insured in London and chartered by a French company – but English courts are very often the preferred forum for the resolution of such matters, not least because of the worldwide significance of the London insurance market. Trade disputes are often resolved through arbitration conducted in various locations, Paris and London being among the most important.

‘Wet’ cases deal with problems at sea, while ‘dry’ cases relate to disputes in port or concerns over the manufacture and financing of vessels. The Bar also has a number of aviation, road haulage and rail specialists, and the sets that dominate these areas also tend to be able to offer commodities trading expertise.

Realities of the job

  • Cases are fact-heavy and paper-heavy. To develop the best arguments for a case, barristers need an organised mind and a willingness to immerse themselves in the documentary evidence. This can be time-consuming and exhausting.
  • There are opportunities for international travel. Cases can run on for years and involve large teams of lawyers, both solicitors and barristers. Young barristers work their way up from second or third junior to leader over a number of years. New juniors do get to run their own smaller cases, like charter party and bills of lading disputes.
  • The world of shipping and trade has its own language and customs.
  • Solicitor clients will usually work at one of the established shipping firms, but lay clients will be a mixed bag of financiers, shipowners, operators, traders and charterers, protecting and indemnity associations (P&I clubs), salvors and underwriters.

Current issues

  • The last few years have been busy ones in the world of shipping litigation, with an uptick in cases partly fuelled by the economic downturn. This trend is expected to continue, as the shipping and commodities sector has been one of the slowest to recover since 2008.
  • The 2008/09 global recession had a particular effect on ‘dry’ shipping. A ship takes a long time to build. Shipyards churned out scores of vessels ordered during the economic boom times, but demand for vessels fell sharply when the crisis hit. The result: contractual disputes. Litigation relating to the recession is tailing off now, but a few cases are still working their way through the courts.
  • The recent drop in oil prices has caused a flood of commodities-related cases.
  • The slowing of economic growth in China and elsewhere is hitting commodities and freight prices. Demand for goods and raw materials has decreased meaning there's an oversupply of tonnage, which could lead to disputes.
  • Shipping disasters which you see on the news are just the tip of the iceberg; numerous crashes and sinkings occur every year.
  • P&I clubs (marine insurers) are increasingly watchful of costs. This has led to increased interested in mediation and the direct instruction of barristers.
  • Piracy cases form a small but fascinating area of work for shipping lawyers. Despite a dramatic drop-off in instances of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden in the past few years, piracy remains a problem elsewhere for example off the coasts of West Africa, India and South East Asia. Arrangements for protection of ships and ransom payments are both issues lawyers are involved in.

Some tips

  • The leading sets are easy to identify. A mini-pupillage with one or more of them will greatly enhance your understanding and chances.
  • Despite the prominence of English law, the work calls for an international perspective and an appreciation of international laws. This can be developed during your undergraduate or master’s degree and on the BPTC.