LONDON – As part of London International Shipping Week, global law firm Reed Smith played host to a panel of shipping industry experts to discuss the key challenges and opportunities facing the sector in a changing world.

Related Professionals: Sally-Ann Underhill Nick Austin

Dozens of attendees from across the industry tuned in to hear the views of industry experts, Birgitte Barfoed, Attorney-at-Law, Senior Vessel Portfolio Manager, A.P. Moeller - Maersk A/S; Alexander Goulandris, Co-Founder & Co-CEO, essDOCS; and Dr Katrina Kemp, Autonomy Technical Specialist, Maritime Future Technologies.

Panel moderators and Reed Smith shipping partners Sally-Ann Underhill and Nick Austin introduced the first topic of discussion, electronic bills of lading, in particular the recent proposals by the UK Law Commission to reform English law regarding “possession” of trade documents currently “dependent on a physical but not virtual existence”. 

Austin said: “This could be a major step forward to achieving true electronic bills, especially given the prevalence of English law in shipping and trade contracts, and following hard on the heels of Singapore’s recent adoption of UNCITRAL’s Model Law. All this suggests we might finally be reaching a tipping point where trade documents truly become digital.”

The panellists were in agreement that the law reforms were a positive step forward. According to Goulandris ‘The UK law commission’s proposals to change the law would be massively impactful,’ He added: “The UK is the largest maritime centre – at least in a legislative sense – in the world, it is a leader of maritime law and is looked at as a country that drives the direction of legislative change. A change in local law at UK level would have an enormous impact on supporting the proposals to push for EBLs on a global basis, it will undoubtedly make other commonwealth countries accelerate their work in this regard.”

“It’s a fantastic step forward, it won’t solve all the problems because obviously we need a critical mass of countries to adopt to a point that the multipartite frameworks won’t be needed at all, but it is a really important step forward.”

“It’s going to be a must have, not a nice-to-have”, Goulandris added.

While the panellists agreed that electronic documents present new challenges, the overwhelming feeling was that the pandemic had; forced the industry to begin to adopt new technologies at a faster pace; introduce hybrid working; and futureproof their businesses in the form of digitisation.