To poach one case from a rival firm merits some self-satisfaction. To poach two cases and win the heart of a mammoth US client in the process deserves some praise. But the little coup by shipping litigation specialist Jackson Parton was even more unusual.
The cases – one in Singapore, being handled by Holman Fenwick & Willan, and the other in France, being handled by Richards Butler – were won by Jackson Parton not while they were in their infancy, when transferring files would not have caused too many hiccups, but a long way down the line.
The instructing client in both cases was US gas giant El Paso. Holman was acting for El Paso chartered ship the Nordic Liberita in its claim against International Oil Tanker Co, which was accused of stealing cargo. Part of the matter had already been settled in El Paso’s favour when the case was passed to Jackson Parton, which, along with Singapore solicitors Rajah & Tann, is now dealingwith outstanding matters relating to costs and losses.
While El Paso was obviously pleased with the result achieved by Holman, sources suggest that the company was less happy with the length of time it took the firm to close the file. El Paso wanted a more aggressive approach to bring the case to an end as soon as possible.
The outstanding matter has since gone to arbitration in London. According to sources familiar with the situation, El Paso suggested early on in the proceedings that the substantive matter should have gone to arbitration, but Holman discouraged the idea, although the firm did later change its mind.
As for Richards Butler’s case, it is uncertain why the lawyer handling it, French managing partner Lars Lewis was asked to hand over the files to Jackson Parton.
Certainly, El Paso had decided that Jackson Parton should handle its UK law litigation and, it appears, receive its Continental cases, which the firm would then refer on to suitable local law firms. Jackson Parton kept a handle on this case, as it was split between it and Patrick Simon of French shipping firm Villeneau Rohart Simon & Associés.
A Richards Butler source disputed that the transferral of the case had anything to do with El Paso deciding to use Jackson Parton as its new firm of choice. Instead, he said it arose out of a conflict of interest that came about late in the litigation.
The case concerned a substantial criminal prosecution against El Paso arising out of an oil slick caused by one of its chartered ships, Coastal Aruba, when it was damaged off the Bay of Biscay.
The chances of a defence victory looked slim. Accord-ing to UK lawyers, the French court hearing the case had already found some 16 defendants guilty who had faced similar charges since the sinking off Brittany of the Erica in 1999. This disaster caused massive pollution as a result of spillage of 10,000 tons of oil. Despite this, the case concluded in El Paso’s favour after Jackson Parton and the French firm took over.
The transferral of the instruction from Richards Butler to Jackson Parton was not an entirely smooth one. According to sources close to the case, after Nick Parton and Simon took over the case, Lewis sought to continue to be instructed by the captain of Coastal Aruba, who also faced criminal prosecution. This went against the wishes of El Paso, which wanted everything to be handled by Parton and Simon and was happy to pay any fines the captain incurred.
This led to a spat centring on Lewis’s demands for El Paso to pay the fees for the time his firm spent advising the captain after El Paso’s instruction had passed to Jackson Parton.
The Richards Butler source disputes that this took place, as Lewis’s decision to continue acting for the captain was by prior agreement.
Richards Butler’s shipping practice remains strong. It represents between 35 and 40 per cent of the firm’s work globally, and in the past three years has seen revenue increases of 13 per cent, 15 per cent, and 16 per cent respectively. It also says its rates have never increased by more than 10 per cent during this period, and that while shipping is not as big an earner as corporate, it tends to successfully ride economic dips.
The larger firms inevitably claim that their smaller niche rivals cannot cope with large shipping cases. Coastal Aruba and the Nordic Liberita might not have been massive, but they were nonetheless a coup for Jackson Parton, and the firm’s successes go some way to refute the arguments of the bigger firms.