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Lawman and the sea

Marine lawyers handle all cases involving maritime vessels in Indian or international territorial waters. Vimal Chander Joshi finds more about this profession.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:45 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

After completing his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mumbai in 1989, Shrikant Hathi wasn’t sure of his future. But he and his brother, who had by then completed his management studies, impulsively decided to study law.

After completing his LLB, Hathi, took up an employment with Little & Company (now Fox Mandal Little after its merger with Fox Mandal) where he was asked to expand the firm’s scope by handling cases related to maritime affairs.

“I was the first one to do that in the firm and VSNL v/s Kapitan Kud, became a landmark case in the field of maritime law. Then many more (cases) followed,” says Hathi.

The gradual inflow of cases earned Hathi the reputation of a marine legal expert-in-the-making. “You just need to be a law graduate and after that it is only through experience that you learn the tricks of the trade. There are many marine lawyers who have made it big and they are plain LLBs. I know there are some universities which offer a postgraduate course in marine law but I don’t know how useful
that is,” he wonders.

In his first case, Hathi was instrumental in the ‘arrest’ of a ship which had damaged submarine (underwater) cables. Doing the documentation work for such arrests is not easy but one ought to be very agile and well versed with the procedures. “You might have to do everything in half a day – from arranging the papers to tracking the vessel and from checking the legal conventions to adhering to their procedural patterns,” Hathi explains.

Such arrests, however, are not everyday affairs. Hathi informs that one can’t survive merely on maritime litigation. One ought to develop expertise in transactional work, too, which includes negotiation and documentation at the time of buying/selling of ships, takeovers and mergers of shipping corporations.

“Litigation work is very limited. In Mumbai, there would be somewhere around 30-35 cases, Kolkata might have five or six and Chennai about two to three. No wonder, there are only a handful of maritime legal firms in India, most of them concentrated in Mumbai, to deal with such matters. Mumbai is important because its jurisdiction spans the country unlike other ports such as Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Chennai, which deal with cases related to their own marine territory,” he says.

Maritime lawyer Joy Thattil also concedes that the litigation work is limited. “There is not much work in India and a maritime lawyer can earn by carrying out transactional work such as drafting and contracting … and so on.”

The litigation in the maritime cases is carried out normally over a huge quantum of goods which are always worth crores of rupees, if not more. Binita Hathi, partner, Brus Chambers, a law firm, says: “Stakes are phenomenal in the maritime cases. Currently, I am pursuing a case wherein a gamut of 38 insurance companies and cargo owners have filed a suit against the vessel owner after his vessel sank into the sea. The court fee, which increases with the value of goods at stake is always the maximum in maritime cases, that is three lakh rupees.”

As stakes are very high, money is also huge in this profession. But one needs to pay a price for that. “Sometimes, I have to work the whole night in office.

You can’t escape from what you do. A minor goof-up will not cause great losses but can also lead to the arrest of my client,” adds Binita.

Even though senior advocates have junior staff to shoulder some of their tasks, it doesn’t relieve the senior lawyer of his/her responsibilities because “ultimately it’s the responsibility of a senior lawyer as the buck stops with him,” adds Binita.

Though all the matters pertain to ships, Hathi doesn’t represent the shipping companies all the time. “When a shipping company doesn’t pay repair charges even when 30 days credit period have lapsed and the ship has left port, a legal battle ensues. In such cases, the ship repair company will file a suit against the vessel and we would represent the repair company to get the ship arrested,” says Hathi.

He also has a piece of advice for the prospective maritime lawyers. “Though the profession pays well, (he charges a fee ranging between $125 or R5637 and $300 or R13,529 per hour), one should be open to all fields of law as a fresher. Be receptive to all kinds of work,” he says.

What's it about?
Maritime lawyers are legal professionals who deal with matters related to laws governing maritime territories around the world. They are required to represent parties litigating over the arrest or release of a maritime vessel, recovering fees or seeking compensation from vessel owners in case of an accident, collision or sinking. Maritime lawyers are required to look into matters as diverse as assessing the liability of ferrying goods or the exploitation of fish stocks in the sea

Clock Work
9 am: Meet the client.
10 am: Appear in the court with a senior counsel
2 pm: Explore the possibility of arbitration with the client
4 pm: Prepare for the next day’s case
6pm: Read court judgments and journals to stay abreast of the latest developments

The Payoff
As a trainee or junior, a maritime lawyer can earn anywhere between Rs10,000 to Rs25,000. The salary increases with experience and time. If you start independent practice, then your income will completely depend on your reputation and the quantum of work you have.

Senior advocates normally charge a minimum of Rs1.5 lakh per hearing in the high courts or the Supreme Court of India

Skills
. One should be well versed with the Merchant Shipping Act, Admiralty Act and the precedents in marine laws across the world.
. One needs to understand international laws too
. One will have to deal with work/people from across the world – the litigating parties/cases could be linked to other countries. Which is why a lawyer should be able to work in night shifts and according
to different time zones.
. One must be incisive because maritime law is a highly specialised area.
. If you have a science background, then it works as an added advantage

How do i get there?
One must be a law graduate. It’s not mandatory to pursue postgraduate studies, though it helps to learn the fundamentals academically. “When you have studied law in great detail then you come back with a lot of authority on the subject, which is very important,” says S. Venkiteswaran, a senior maritime lawyer.

There are some universities in India and abroad which offer a specialisation such as University of Southampton and University of Tulane

Institutes & urls
. Five-year BA, LLB from National Law University, Bangalore;
www.nls.ac.in
. Five-year BA, LLB from Nalsar, Hyderabad;
www.nalsar.ac.in
. Five-year BA, LLB from National Law Institute University, Bhopal;
www.nliu.com
. Five-year BA, LLB from National Law University, Delhi;
www.nludelhi.ac.in
. LLM in maritime law from the Faculty of Law, University of Southampton;
www.soton.ac.uk
. LLM in admiralty from Tulane University Law School, New Orleans, USA

Pros & cons


.

Money is quite good. Those who manage to gain a firm foothold in the profession get paid very high level


.

Maritime law will give the practitioner an opportunity to go global.


.

Being a niche field, it’s not easy to begin a career because there are very few senior advocates under whom one can learn the ropes

You can earn serious money

One of the seniormost maritime lawyers in India speaks about the opportunities in the field

This is a highly specialised field; is there enough work for aspiring maritime lawyers?
There is enough work. There is plenty of work in ship financing, arbitration and other areas where no court-bound work happens.

Maritime conflicts do take place in India, so why aren’t Indian universities offering courses in maritime law?
The National Law School in Bangalore started a programme some time back. But lack of talented faculty is the primary concern. As a matter of fact, Indian clients try and look for British solicitors. Even today, you will find clients looking for foreign solicitors.

It clearly shows that there is a lack of maritime lawyers in India.

When you started practising, there were barely any maritime lawyers. How did you get the motivation?
I was a criminal lawyer and was fed-up with representing smugglers and all sorts of criminals. Out of exasperation, I desperately wanted to sneak out. By a sheer stroke of luck, I got a break with P&I Club (an organisation providing protection and indemnity insurance to ship owners) immediately after emergency in 1977. Then I was asked to take over a lot of pending cases on a retainership basis.

Does practice in maritime law mean you get to travel a lot?
It certainly does. In 2010, I have been travelleding across India, London, Singapore, USA and Dubai.

What kind of work is an Indian maritime lawyer required to do in the foreign courts?
One doesn’t appear in the court there. One can do arbitration, or help the other lawyer arrange evidence – especially in the cases when matters pertaining to Indian laws arise.

Is it advisable to pursue an LLM in maritime law?
My answer would be both yes and no. Yes, because when you have studied it in great detail then you come back with a lot of authority on the subject, which is very important. You can’t afford to make mistakes in this profession. One can’t give the wrong impression to the client (that you lack knowledge).

And no, because even if you go to a university there is little you can learn. Not many universities have good faculty in maritime law. But there are a few universities in some countries abroad which offer this specialization – such as the University of Southampton, and University of Tulane.

You made a move from criminal law to maritime law. Would you recommend that fresh law graduates pursue this profession?
When you start practising in a certain field, it becomes very difficult to give up what you are pursuing and start something afresh after a few years. So, if a law graduate wants to become a maritime lawyer then one shouldn’t waste even a single day. Right from day one, one should give this a try.

How much money do you get in this profession? Is it more paying than criminal law?
In terms of amount of work, I would agree that work is relatively less, but when it comes to payment, there is scope for making a lot of money. At the same time, there is no denying the fact that people, including newcomers, might have to struggle for a while initially However successful maritime lawyers can make money to the tune of R1crore to R2 crore a year.

S. Venkiteswaran, a senior maritime lawyer interviewed by Vimal Joshi