What is shipping law?

Paul Herring is a partner at Ince & Co...

Shipping law is the law related to shipping and international trade by sea/river. It might appear to be a very niche area of practice, but, in fact, it’s incredibly diverse and many of the leading contract law authorities are shipping cases (The Moorcock, Heron II, Wagon Mound No.2 and The Happy Day, to name just a few). In shipping law, while the focus is on a particular sector, clients face as wide a range of legal issues as in any other.

There are both contentious and non-contentious sides to working in shipping law. On the contentious side, shipping litigation can develop out of contractual disputes – for example, disputes related to charterparty (ship hire) contracts, ship building contracts, contracts for the carriage of cargo, towage and salvage contracts. The first three of these are often referred to as dry shipping disputes. Shipping litigation can also arise out of maritime incidents – such as collisions, groundings, an engine breakdown, the total loss of a ship or oil pollution. These may be tortious claims (such as between two ships following a collision) or contractual claims (such as a cargo owner claiming for their lost or damaged cargo). Claims arising from such incidents are sometimes referred to as wet shipping disputes.

On the non-contentious side, the work ranges from advising on the financing of ship building and sale/purchase, to regulatory advice, as the shipping industry faces ever-increasing intervention by governments.

Many of the contracts used in the shipping industry have seemingly peculiar and unusual terms that have been refined and developed over a long time. Years of accumulated case law have clarified and elucidated the meanings of key words and phrases. There are some weird and wonderful rules which would seem quite alien to other areas of law.

Given the technical nature of the industry, cases often have a technical side and require significant amounts of expert evidence. For example, following a collision, you might seek input from a Master Mariner as to what they would have done in the circumstances facing the actual ship’s captain. Where there has been an engine breakdown, you might seek advice from an engineer on how the ship should have been maintained and why it broke down. This opportunity to delve into technical issues lends a further dimension to the role of a shipping solicitor and cases can often challenge a solicitor’s understanding of the technical detail.

Shipping is naturally a global industry and this can make for some extremely wide-ranging jurisdictional issues. It also means that as a shipping lawyer you can find yourself engaging with clients, lawyers and experts in many different countries and learning about the idiosyncrasies of different jurisdictions. Dealing with claims in other jurisdictions can be surprising and exciting, throwing up novel issues and presenting new and interesting challenges. It can also provide the opportunity for travel.

The shipping industry is a 24-hour business, running seven days a week, 365 days a year, transporting goods all over the world. It is certainly the case that time is money in this business. As such, shipping solicitors sometimes work antisocial hours and to urgent deadlines; for example, in the immediate aftermath of an incident where salvage services may need to be arranged or actions taken to minimise the impact on the environment, or when a ship is arrested and security must be provided urgently in order to secure her release. The benefit of this is that the work is often very interesting and provides you with a real sense of being on the cutting edge, giving advice in real time.

A good shipping lawyer understands their clients’ industries, and new trainees will learn to adapt their legal knowledge to their clients’ needs as they gain experience in the job. Being commercially aware is extremely important as, in many cases, the client will be uninterested in the strict legal answer and will want a solution that caters for the commercial pressures and circumstances. It is often our job to juggle commercial pressures with getting the law right and ensuring that our clients’ position is properly protected.

Day-to-day work

Every day is different; on any given day a junior litigation solicitor is likely to handle a number of claims at different stages of progression.

For example, you might be preparing for a collision liability hearing where the Admiralty Court will decide the percentage of blame between two ships involved in a collision. This could involve drafting pleadings or reviewing counsel’s drafts, drafting witness statements, and working with experts. It might also involve preparing court bundles. You might review an initial incoming claim for clients – for example, a claim for damages for delay (known as demurrage) after a ship has been delayed in port. You might be asked to write an advice on the merits of defending a cargo claim received by a ship owner. You are likely to be liaising with lawyers and experts abroad – perhaps taking a supervisory role in relation to proceedings abroad, particularly where there are high-value and multiple claims following a significant incident. You might also be dealing with an urgent casualty – mobilising an in-house Master Mariner to attend on board the ship and interview the relevant crew members. The solicitor usually takes the desk role and co-ordinates the process, fielding information, analysing press articles, sending reports to clients and taking a bird’s eye view.

Some claims will be busy and substantial, whereas others may be small or perhaps slow-moving. This means that there is often a lot of variety in the work you are doing. On smaller claims, trainee solicitors can take on more responsibility. As trainees become more experienced and develop the tools of their trade, they will tend to take on an increased number of cases and handle higher value or more complicated disputes.

Ince & Co

With over 140 years of experience, Ince & Co is one of the oldest law firms in the City. Thanks to a world-leading reputation initially built on shipping and insurance, over the decades the firm has successfully explored new territory and established expertise across a number of other related industries, including aviation, energy and infrastructure and international trade. Ince & Co is a truly international firm with offices in Beijing, Cologne, Dubai, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Le Havre, London, Marseille, Monaco, Paris, Piraeus, Shanghai and Singapore.

For further information about the firm, see