The role of a ship's agent is ordinarily to
communicate and make commercial arrangements between a principal
and third parties.
As a general rule, when the agent is (and is seen to be) only
facilitating rather than directly conducting operations, the
chances of the agent having legal responsibility when something
goes wrong remain reasonably low. If the lines blur, trouble can
follow but here are three habits and defensive techniques that
agents can adopt to help avoid difficulties.
Ship's agents should always make it clear that they are
acting as an agent when conducting commercial dealings. Most agents
do sign commercial documents - and all correspondence - "as
agent only" as a matter of routine. Nonetheless it is
worthwhile reinforcing that this is an essential risk minimisation
An agent who provides information or advice to their principal
(or anyone else) without stating the source of that information or
advice may save typing and sound impressive but will seem far less
impressive - and may be legally liable – if the
information or advice turns out to be wrong.
An agent who says "the depth alongside is 14 metres"
may face difficulties if the depth turns out to be less. An agent
who says "the terminal operator says the depth alongside is 14
metres" may well be in the clear, even if what the terminal
operator said proves to be wrong.
As professionals, we all like to be seen by our clients to have
a "can do" attitude, but inevitably situations arise
where something unusual must be organised, perhaps at short notice
and involving multiple other participants, and that is where
Ideally responsibilities should be fully documented but even if
time is too short for that, a quick communication to all involved
setting out who is responsible for what, when and for how much can
pay major dividends.
Ideally someone other than the agent should be noted to have
overall responsibility for the operation, and the operation will be
described by reference to the result your principal wants to
achieve, rather than the specific material steps required for that
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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