Key Facts

Shipping law deals with the legal issues relating to ships and the movement of goods and people by sea

Shipping law practice is divided into two parts:

  • Wet Shipping - issues that come up during actual voyage (so accidents or issues that occur whilst at sea)

  • Dry Shipping - all other matters that arise in connection with ships (so the contractual and commercial elements such as negotiating contracts, arranging funding, constructing ships etc).

There are both contentious (court/dispute led) and non-contentious (transactional led) elements to a shipping lawyer's work. 

The area of law covering shipping law is 'admiralty' and/or 'maritime' law. 

The practice of shipping law involves litigation, contract and tort law. Personal injury and employment can also play a part too!

Due to the very nature of 'shipping', the work will involve multiple jurisdictions and lawyers will often deal with cross-border disputes so an interest in international law is necessary! 

There are two key courts to think about in shipping law: 

  • The Admiralty Court - think 'wet' shipping law 

  • The Commercial Court - think 'dry' shipping law

The Admiralty Court

The Admiralty Court is a specialist court that forms part of the Business and Property Court of the High Court of Justice. 

Cases are heard by one Admiralty Judge but some matters may be heard by the Admiralty Register. 

The Admiralty Court hears cases to do with shipping and maritime disputes such as: 

  • collisions between ships

  • disputes over the transport of cargo 

  • disputes over goods supplied to a ship 

  • disputes over mortgages and other security over ships

  • claims by passengers for injuries suffered 

  • claims by ship crew for unpaid wages

Claims can be Brough against the ship owner ('in personam' claims) and/or the ship itself ('in rem' claims). 

The Commercial Court

The Commercial Court is a specialist division of the High Court (Queen's Bench Division)

The Commercial Court will deal with commercial claims that may arise out of a shipping transaction, such as trade and commerce

Judges of the Commercial Court will have practiced shipping and insurance law and have sector and industry knowledge and experience to hear shipping disputes. 

Think of typical contractual or tort claims that can come up in a commercial contract - put that into the perspective of a shipping contract - that's the type of case the court will hear!

What do 'wet' shipping lawyers do?

Wet shipping lawyers travel the world (!) as they will be expected to travel to see clients at a moment's notice in the event of a misadventure at sea!

A lawyer in this area will assess the condition of the ship involved in an accident (hence the need to travel), interview the witnesses and advise their clients on merits of a likely claim in relation to the accident. 

As the work is largely contentious, wet shipping lawyers will regularly have the conferences with counsel (barristers!), attend court and be involved in arbitration. 

If you're interested in this area, you'll need some solid technical maritime knowledge so a specialist maritime qualification or previous experience is essential!

What do 'dry' shipping lawyers do?

Much like any commercial lawyer, dry shipping lawyers negotiate and draft lots of contractual documentation

Legal documents in shipping law will include financial agreements to do with funding the ship, contracts in relation to the sale and purchase of ships, as well as construction, carriage and insurance of the ship. There will also be employment contracts to draft for the workers too!

Dry shipping law will involve contentious work too (see commercial court section above) but unfortunately, such disputes will not involve overseas travel as the dispute will stem from the contract itself. 

An interest in overseas legal jurisdictions is necessary in this area as you will regularly consider and incorporate the implications of this when drafting contracts.