Admiralty & shipping

Admiralty & shipping

Robert Thomas QC

Quadrant Chambers

University: University of Cambridge
Degree: Law

Shipping law is one of the oldest and most developed branches of commercial law. It falls into two areas: ‘dry’ shipping involves contractual issues, such as bill of lading and charterparty disputes, whereas ‘wet’ shipping involves disputes over the ship itself (eg, collision and salvage). Although the shipping industry is by its nature international, London remains the pre-eminent venue for dispute resolution.


Robert Thomas QC gained experience of both the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions through various placements and mini-pupillages, before deciding which to pursue. “What ultimately attracted me to the Bar was advocacy – the chance to argue on my feet and make decisions,” he explains. “I was also drawn by the independence that comes with the role.”

After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Robert completed pupillage at what was then known as 2 Essex Court – now Quadrant Chambers. Still at Quadrant and a home-grown QC, Robert has developed a thriving practice in which shipping law forms an important part: “Traditionally, commercial work was always shipping, insurance and commodities, and those three elements – the international sale, transport and insuring of goods – are still a mainstay of much commercial work at the Bar, although there are so many more aspects to take into account these days. Quadrant has been preeminent in those areas for as long as I can remember, and like all junior barristers starting out, expertise and access to the set’s client base was passed down to me by my senior colleagues. As I think most barristers will tell you, there is always a degree of chance in how your practice develops, as much depends firstly on the chambers you join and then which clients you really get on with, and who use you again. I’m lucky enough to be instructed by several mainstream, high-quality firms who choose to come back to me.”

Many different types of case fall under the shipping umbrella. “The variety is huge,” says Robert. “You get everything from ‘wet work’ – which in shipping means work related to collisions and salvage, and now makes up just a very small part of maritime cases – to disputes about damaged cargo; contractual disputes arising out of charterparty agreements for the hiring of ships; and cases resulting from piracy. For an example of the latter, I’m currently working on a case in which a vessel was hijacked and later released by pirates, which has created very interesting legal consequences.”

Disputes in the offshore oil and gas industry also come under Robert’s shipping portfolio. And if the variety within this area still does not seem enough, high-end cases can extend far beyond shipping matters. “A good example of that diversity is a long-running case that I was involved in a couple of years ago, in which the main issues were of much wider importance and had very little to do with shipping at all,” explains Robert. “We were trying to lift the corporate veil – to get behind the corporate structure of a shipping company to the person pulling the strings behind the scenes. The case involved a former Soviet republic and the layers that an individual had put in place to shield himself from the limelight while making a lot of money. Another case, Prest v Petrodel, went to the Supreme Court raising the same issues and just got in front of us in the queue, so unfortunately we did not have the chance to fight our corner in court – and the Supreme Court came to the wrong answer from our point of view. Nonetheless, it shows how issues much broader than disputes purely concerned with shipping can arise.”

“The disputes in which I act are very rarely the same and that also goes for the people with whom I work – in shipping, there are almost never bland clients”

The variety is one of the most appealing aspects of the job. “The disputes in which I act are very rarely the same and that also goes for the people with whom I work,” says Robert. “In shipping, there are almost never bland clients – there is usually an interesting story behind each one. And the fact that this area is so international in scope means that you work with people from all over the world. In fact, our only UK-based clients are usually insurers – only one or two of the big commodity houses base themselves in the United Kingdom and all the other players are foreign. This leads to an interesting range of viewpoints, as people with different backgrounds and experiences are bound to see things differently.”

However, there is no doubt that life at the Bar is hard work. “Anyone entering the profession should be aware that there will be periods where you really have to roll your sleeves up,” warns Robert. “However, this balances out, as during quieter periods you don’t need to hang around chambers when you don’t need to, because you are your own boss.”

While Brexit has certainly rocked the boat for the UK economy, Robert does not predict adverse consequences for the shipping Bar: “I think London’s pre-eminence in shipping law is unlikely to be affected by Brexit. The only area that I see being immediately affected is the jurisdictional rules – also known as the Brussels Regulations – which are part of European legislation that has long-since superseded common law in most respects. It seems to me that the regulations will have to be put aside now that Britain is to no longer be part of the European Union. However, most of our client base is not based in the European Union either – as an example, we frequently work with Turkish, Chinese and Russian organisations. This means that that we roll with the global markets. Volatility breeds disputes, as you can imagine when people are making a lot of money one minute and losing a lot of money the next, so the uncertainty around the world at the moment means that the commercial Bar is not a bad place to be.”  

To be successful in this area of law, Robert is keen to emphasise the importance of strong analytical skills. “Most disputes turn on one or two key issues and it is vital to be able to cut through everything else to identify them,” he explains. “You also need to approach matters with an open mind, especially considering the international client base – everyone probably comes to things with a few preconceptions, but it is important to be able to put those aside and deal with the facts on the ground as you find them. Good communication skills are also crucial – it sounds obvious, but being able to clearly convey what can be complex and difficult ideas is a real talent. Bear in mind that you will often have to communicate ideas to lawyers and clients in other countries, who are not from the same legal tradition as you. There is a tightrope between not talking down to people and explaining things clearly so that they can understand the issues of the case and why you think that their case is a good or bad one. This also transfers to court – you have to be aware of your audience; if the judge is not receptive to your point, you need to put it in a different way or gracefully move on, instead of ploughing on regardless.”

Finally, Robert advises that determination and perseverance will help those harbouring ambitions of becoming barristers themselves to succeed: “There are plenty of people saying that the Bar is a very tough place to build a career, but the key for budding barristers is not to be put off. The Bar is a very competitive environment, but in my view it is also an extremely meritocratic profession, which is something that we don’t emphasise enough.”