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

Current issues 

October 2023 

  • The world of shipping litigation has been busy since the economic crash, with the shipping and commodities sector being one of the slowest to recover since 2008. A weak industry typically leads to disputes. 
  • The slowing of economic growth in China and elsewhere is now hitting commodities and freight prices. Demand for goods and raw materials has decreased meaning there's an oversupply of tonnage. 
  • P&I clubs (marine insurers) are increasingly watchful of costs. This has led to increased interest in mediation and the direct instruction of barristers. 
  • An oversupply of container ships in the last few years has seen a decline in companies looking to purchase new ones. Instead, shipping companies are growing their business through acquiring smaller companies and/or competitors. 
  • Shipping is one of the industries most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic; the International Chamber of Shipping described the situation as ‘the single greatest operational challenge confronting the global shipping industry since the Second World War.’ 
  • In response to the war in Ukraine, the UK government, along with countries all over the globe, implemented sanctions on Russian cargo in an effort to discourage the Russian invasion. The various shipping sanctions ban Russian ships from entering UK ports, and extends to ships that have any connection with Russia. It is now a criminal offence to ignore any sanctions related to Russia - maximum sentences include prison time. Sanctions are also having an impact on the routine payment of freights where sellers of Russian origin have payments blocked – this has raised issues of war risk and coverage for insurers. 
  • The war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices is having an influence disputes facing the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA). Impacted by this, commodities related disputes are increasing generally and specifically in cases of shipping transportation. 
  • The combination of the Russian war against Ukraine and the aftermath of Covid-19 have had ramifications on China’s supply chains. Due to the country shutting down its ports in an attempt to ease the symptoms of Covid, China’s exports were particularly slow during the first few months of 2022.
  • Piracy cases form a small but fascinating area of work for shipping lawyers. Despite a dramatic drop-off in instances of piracy in the past few years, it still remains a problem. Arrangements for protection of ships and ransom payments are both issues lawyers are involved in. 
  • The potential proliferation of remote-controlled vessels – a trend that should be viewed in parallel with the gargantuan hype around self-driving cars – opens up a whole new front in shipping disputes. Technology will collide with responsibility to create a web of potential legal issues. 
  • In September 2022, around 2,000 workers the UK’s biggest container port, Felixstowe, went on an eight day strike following a dispute over pay. This overlapped with a two-week strike at Liverpool port. According to MDS Transmode, the combined value of weekly trade exported from both ports is $7 billion. Nearly 600 workers at the Liverpool port engaged in a second week-long strike in October.
  • The potential for oil spills constantly plagues the industry. In the summer of 2020, a Japanese cargo ship ran aground on a coral reef off the coast of Mauritius, leaking 1,000 tonnes of oil into an environmentally-protected lagoon and endangering the rare marine life. The Mauritian government declared a national emergency. The captain admitted to drinking during an on-board birthday party - the captain said he had issued instructions to approach Mauritian waters to get mobile phone signal. In 2021, the captain and first mate were sentenced to 20 months in prison, and 15 fishermen affected by the spill will receive $500 each. Mauritius had claimed $34 million in compensation. 
  • In early 2023 the Supreme Court upheld an appeal decision in Jall v. Shell International Trading and Shipping Company. Claimants argued that an oil spill which begun in December 2011 was a continuing nuisance but the claim was struck down – as a result, because the original claims on the devastating impact the spill had on the Nigerian Atlantic coastline were instigated more than six years after the oil reached the coast, the claim was statute-barred. 
  • The blocking of the Suez Canal by the ship, the “Ever Given” continues to have ongoing effects, with the fallout estimated at around $5 billion in world trade per day. The Suez Canal Authority reached a settlement with the shipping company responsible, but owners of the vessel still face lawsuits over the event – earlier this year, shipping giant Maersk filed a suit with intentions of retrieving losses caused by the canal’s blockage. 


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.