Bar talk

The shipping world has not been gripped by so much excitement since the discovery of time instruments to precisely locate a ship's position on the high seas.
Stephenson Harwood is full steam ahead with its merger with the once mighty Sinclair Roche & Temperley, and Watson Farley & Williams (albeit a minor fish in the shipping law firm ocean) has Simmons in its scope.
Also, Mr Justice Colman has stated that Ince & Co and Clyde & Co carry out half the work in the Commercial Court, a statement that beggars belief among outsiders, while insiders shrug and say, “Of course” (The Lawyer, 18 February).
Stranger things may happen at sea, but balance Clyde's and Ince's success here with the considerable drop they and most other shipping firms worth their salt have experienced in terms of the number of reported cases, and you begin to wonder. But herein perhaps lies the wonderful truth about the recent history of UK shipping law.
The survey on reported cases was carried out by Nick Parton of nine-partner niche shipping litigation practice Jackson Parton, who analysed Admiralty Law Reports and Lloyd's Law Reports for two five-year periods, 1992-1996 and 1997-2002.
It was clever marketing for Jackson Parton, which inevitably was one of only three firms out of the 19 in the survey that saw an increase in the number of reported cases, from 12 to 21. Parton dispatched congratulatory letters to Holman Fenwick & Willan and to small shipping practice Bentleys Stokes & Lowless, which saw increases of 43 to 50 and 10 to 13 respectively. Neither have responded to date.
Most firms, however, saw dramatic drops. For example, Clyde went from 110 to 74, Ince 99 to 47, Richards Butler 53 to 26, Sinclair Roche 31 to 12, Stephsenson Harwood 32 to 30, Lawrence Graham 29 to 16 and Norton Rose 26 to 9.
So is there simply a lot less litigation around than before or does the answer lie elsewhere?
Obviously, Woolf has had some impact in driving parties to settle out of court. Two weeks ago at a City litigation forum hosted by SJ Berwin, Judge Colman, who has made a name for himself with his efforts to reduce court litigation, aired the idea that fines should be imposed for not settling at mediation.
Arbitration has been flourishing since 1996, although it is still a small proportion of the hundreds of thousands of claims forms issued each year. Many of the world's largest arbitrations relate to shipping disputes, not least the infamous Solitaire affair (see news story, left). It seems shipping lends itself to arbitrations, as they are often complex, involving several jurisdictions and multiple parties, all of which can take up a lot of time and money if contested in open court. Lawyers also complain about the difficulties in getting leave to appeal decisions.
Arbitrations may be the domain of most shipping companies, but, argue the bigger ones, the larger cases, which tend to go to arbitration or take a long time to litigate, are these days pretty much exclusively handled by them, which is another possible explanation for the drop in reported cases.
Meanwhile, there is claimed to have been a shift of bread-and-butter cases to smaller companies. Jackson Parton disputes this, and with some justification. For example, it is currently handling Koch Shipping

Richards Butler, the biggest Chinese walls case since the Prince Jefri litigation, and recently dealt with a large shipping fraud case, Standard Chartered Bank

Pakistan National Shipping Corporation & ors.
But there is certainly less work in the Admiralty Court, because fewer ships go to UK ports and better controls of shipping lines has led to fewer accidents and thus less litigation. Nevertheless, litigators are still busy – proof of which can be seen in the high turnover figures for Ince and Clyde – with insolvency and insurance-related work keeping some shipping departments busy during downturns.
So while Jackson Parton's figures say something about changes in the nature of shipping litigation, they do not necessarily reflect a negative outlook. The major shipping litigation firms are sailing high, while those handling predominantly non-contentious work are faring less well. Expect to see the smaller firms on the lookout for potential merger partners to keep the wind in their sails.
brendan.malkin@thelawyer.com