Piracy off the coast of Somalia is big business. Last year alone pirate gangs were paid an estimated £35m from holding scores of ships and hundreds of crew members to ransom.
But securing their release is the responsibility of a hidden mini-industry of lawyers, negotiators and security teams based nearly 7,000km (4,200 miles) away, in London, UK, the business capital of the world’s maritime industry.
When a ship’s owner discovers one of their fleet has been hijacked, the first port of call for them is normally to a lawyer like Stephen Askins, whose firm is one of the few that deals with kidnaps and ransoms at sea.
James Wilkes, who runs specialist maritime risk company Gray Page, which has been involved in negotiations in several hijackings in Somalia, says it can mean daily contact with pirates for several months. The average hijack lasts two months before a ransom is paid.
The going ransom rate is $1m-$2m, but getting to a final figure is like a “tense boardroom negotiation” he says.
“A commercial transaction is probably a good way to describe it. They have hijacked the ship, the crew and its cargo and they want a certain amount of money for its release.
“It’s about finding the right way to get the ship released and on the right terms, although human lives are involved and the consequences of something going wrong are quite significant.”
Last year Somali pirates pocketed an estimated $50m. Not all of this is going to British lawyers, negotiators and security teams but a fair chunk of it will be. It has led to some criticism, particularly in Spain, that London is profiting from crime.
Here’s an outline of the services one of these specialist law firms provide:
Piracy and terrorism
Our lawyers include not only ex-master mariners, who have had command of a range of vessels in the merchant navy, but also ex-Royal Navy officers and other military personnel with specialist security training. We have practical experience of helping shipowners and underwriters respond to attacks on vessels by pirates and terrorists, including where crew and passengers have been taken hostage.
via Holman Fenwick Willan (law firm website)
From the look of their website they do not look cheap… I have heard that these lawyers have gained such prominence that the pirates themselves are considering hiring lawyers to represent them in negotiations!! If they do you have to wonder if the Somali pirates will end up getting anything once fees are deducted! 😉