Malcolm Hartwell - after adding a law degree to his master mariner's certificate - is head of transport at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa.
Malcolm Hartwell - after adding a law degree to his master mariner's certificate - is head of transport at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa.

What is a master mariner?

It refers to what used to be called a master foreign-going certificate of competency, and entitles the holder to command any type of ship on any voyage in the world.

What sorts of issues do you have to address as a maritime lawyer?

Maritime lawyers are privileged to deal with a wide range of issues governed by various legal systems and very rarely have any cases that are similar to another. I mainly act for ship and cargo owners and their insurers in dealing with claims arising out of the operation of their ship.

Because of my background, the bulk of my practice involves casualties such as sinkings, collisions, groundings and fires at sea. These normally involve investigating the cause of an incident, determining in which countries those claims can be pursued, securing those claims and pursuing them.

I also act for a number of shipping banks and commodity traders and provide advice to the former on loan agreements and enforcement of mortgages on ships and to the latter mainly on trade disputes.

What do you usually do at work each day?

When I am not attending on a casualty, the bulk of the day is spent drafting advice, pleadings and application papers in the mainly litigious and regulatory matters I am involved in.

The global shipping market is at its lowest point in decades, and, as a result, claims are less common than a few years ago, but I still spend a fair amount of time in court applying for orders for the arrest of ships for claims or trying to get a ship released from arrest on behalf of her owners.

How did you end up doing this work?

I had been at sea for 10 years since leaving school and was looking for another challenge. I did not want to drift ashore without a real plan to do something fulfilling as life at sea then was still financially rewarding with lots of leave and real camaraderie.

There were no master mariners with law degrees at that time, and when I spoke to the then senior partner at Deneys Reitz, he assured me that there would be a position available for me if I could add a law degree to my seagoing qualification. I read for a BA LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand and was admitted as an attorney in South Africa and as a solicitor in England and Wales.

I was fortunate to have spent my 10 years at sea with Safmarine, serving mainly on general cargo, bulk carriers, refrigerated and container ships on various trades including the Far and Middle East, Europe and the Americas. I started out as a deck cadet officer and worked my way up through the navigating officer ranks until I left sea with my master certificate.

What do you enjoy most about the work?

The fact that every case is different both factually and in terms of the governing law means I am constantly challenged intellectually. Much of the work is very urgent as well, which lends an air of excitement.

What part would you prefer not to do?

The world and our practice are becoming more and more regulated, and I really don't enjoy the admin issues that come with this.

What is the best career advice you received, and who gave it to you?

When I was contemplating leaving the sea, my captain said whatever I did ashore I must make sure that it challenged me. There are few things worse in life than being bored with what occupies most of your day.

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