Admiralty and shipping law: area of practice (barristers)

Dispute resolution and contracts feature heavily in this competitive area of practice, explains James Hatt from 4 Pump Court

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Disputes can break out even before a ship is built.

The shipping industry is international, but a large amount of it is subject to English law. Barristers in England and Wales can be involved with disputes relating to ships and other marine craft, for example, oil rigs.

International shipping disputes often go to English courts

Disputes can break out even before a ship is built. Shipbuilding is a specialised field of construction with its own contracts, many of which include English law and/or London dispute resolution clauses even though neither the shipyard nor its customer has any connection with the UK. When a shipbuilding contract goes wrong, if a shipyard can’t complete construction or a buyer won’t pay, there is a good chance that the resulting dispute will involve barristers.

Once a ship has been put into service, other disputes can arise. Barristers argue in the Admiralty Court about who was at fault in ship crashes. The ship might be chartered, and disputes can arise about issues, such as how much hire has to be paid, whether the charterers can insist on the vessel going to a dangerous port or whether the ship performed to specifications. If cargo becomes damaged, disputes may break out about whose fault that was.

Ships can be bought, sold, repaired, refuelled, mortgaged and insured – and barristers can be involved in disputes about any of these. But ships are also a bit different: did you know that ships can be arrested, for example? Shipping disputes can be highly technical, involving experts on matters such as engineering or project planning, but can hinge on the meaning of just a few words. A large proportion of shipping cases are decided by arbitration, and the Commercial Court has become the main court for shipping law.

Types of client and time in chambers

Clients include shipyards, ship owners, ship charterers, insurance companies, banks and cargo interests, and they can be based almost anywhere in the world. Demanding clients mean that you should expect to work long hours – with more time spent in chambers than advocacy, arbitration or litigation. These disputes are often high value, so shipping law is a very competitive field to enter as a barrister.

The nature of the work depends on the case, but typically involves advising on what a contract means or who is likely to win a dispute (often with a tight deadline to work to), drafting the documents necessary to start or respond to proceedings in court or arbitration, working with solicitors in bringing a case to trial and acting as the advocate at preliminary or final hearings. The best part of the job is the chance to work with (and against) other highly able and motivated lawyers.


The shipping industry was hugely affected by the recession, as the price of ships and hire rates dropped sharply in 2008. This generated work for shipping law barristers, at that time and for a few years afterwards, as ship purchasers and charterers tried to get out of unprofitable contracts. My experience is that the last few years have been steadier.

As a pupil

As a pupil, you should expect to work office hours, but be prepared for some extra evenings and weekends. You assist your pupil supervisor with their work during your first six months, researching legal issues and producing the first drafts of advices or statements of case. In your second six months, you may get some of your own written work, but it is unlikely that you will have much, if any, shipping law advocacy at the beginning of your practice.

Types of law practised

  • Contract
  • Tort
  • Conflict of laws
  • International/maritime

Good shipping law barristers have...

  • Strong analytical skills and the ability to present arguments clearly and concisely
  • The ability to work consistently to a high standard, for long hours or under tight deadlines
  • A willingness to work either independently or as part of a larger team involving solicitors, experts and other professionals

JAMES HATT is a barrister at 4 PUMP COURT and specialises in shipping law. He graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University and was called to the Bar in 2003.

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