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English shipping law takes lockdown in its stride

Shipping litigation and arbitration in London is working well despite the coronavirus lockdown, according to participants in a webinar organised by Quadrant Chambers and Maritime London

‘Much of our activity is business as usual… We have the ability to conduct virtual hearings and we have the ability, as we have always done, to conduct hearings on paper,’ says London Maritime Arbitrators Association president

SHIPPING litigation and arbitration in London has weathered the coronavirus lockdown surprisingly well, and greater use of videoconferencing and electronic documents is likely to remain in place even after the crisis has ended, according to legal experts.

Robert Thomas QC highlighted official guidance from the Lord Chief Justice, mandating that remote hearings should be the method of choice in non-witness cases, and used if possible even if witnesses are to be called.

This is proving highly effective, with nothing of significance lost, he said in a webinar organised by Quadrant Chambers and Maritime London.

Courts have in any case decided to reduce lists, and the Master of the Rolls has launched a consultation with the courts. Further guidance is expected later this month.

Meanwhile, paper ‘bundles’ of court documents — which, despite the name, often constitute trolley-loads of ring binders — are on the way out, and have been replaced by e-bundles.

Great care must be taken in getting e-bundles correct, and only essential documents and authorities cited, simply to make them manageable.

Moreover, with judges not reading round the issues to the same extent, so-called “skeleton” arguments should be longer than in the past, Mr Thomas counselled.

Ian Gaunt, president of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association, said that much maritime arbitration is anyway conducted on a document-only basis, so the problems seen in other parts of the legal system with virtual hearings are simply not an issue.

“Much of our activity is business as usual,” he said. “We have the ability to conduct virtual hearings and we have the ability, as we have always done, to conduct hearings on paper.”

E-bundles have certainly proven their viability, and many will continue to use them even after the current pandemic.

The main platform that has emerged is Zoom, and the concerns that some have expressed over that platform’s security have been overstated.

Mark Lloyd, a solicitor with Kennedys Law and chair of the Admiralty Solicitors Group, said the expectation for honesty and transparency from all parties in legal disputes. No one should take opportunist advantage of the situation, he stressed.

“What is clear is that for low-value cases, the remote hearing mode is something that has worked for many years,” he said.

By contrast, major commercial court cases involving multiple witnesses over multiple jurisdictions can still represent a struggle.

However, one snag that has emerged is the inability of parties to be able to go to their offices to access documents.

The new ways of working will undoubtedly bring savings, not least in travel, but these may not be as significant as may assume.

Another upside could be a reduction in the pressure on many court buildings.

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