Law (and logistics) on the high seas

James Farrant, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy and door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court, recently returned from operations in Libya in HMS Cumberland. He explains how a barrister came to be a member of the command team of a warship.

HMS Cumberland sailed from Valletta, Malta for the third time in two weeks on 12 March. We had just delivered our third batch of evacuees from Libya, taking the total number of civilians we rescued to 454. We were immediately re-tasked following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising the establishment of a “No Fly Zone” and enforcement of the already-established arms embargo against Libya “by all necessary means”. The evacuation phase was over, and now for something completely different: NATO task group operations and denial of the sea space to anyone attempting to breach the Resolution.


Being available at short notice to conduct any range of contingencies is what warships are good at: we can be poised unseen over the horizon, move in rapidly to carry out any tasking required of us with minimal support from ashore, and extricate ourselves quickly. There is nothing new in this flexibility: in my relatively short 13 years in the Navy, my career has included counter-smuggling operations in UK waters, maritime security patrols in the South Atlantic, energy security patrols in the Arabian Gulf, counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and evacuation operations in Lebanon (2006) and in Libya. 

 Royal Navy legal cadre

I am a barrister employed by the Royal Navy, but not solely as a barrister. Uniquely in the Armed Services, the Royal Navy internally selects and trains its legal cadre. Competition for legal training places is fairly fierce. Most, as I do, come from the Navy’s Logistics Branch, as experience gained in personnel, discipline and other casework generates aptitude and appetite for legal work. Again, uniquely in the Armed Services, naval lawyers remain fully-fledged members of their source specialisation. Most continue to act as Logistics Officers at sea in addition to their legal duties: which is how I find myself in HMS Cumberland as the head of the Logistics Department.

Customised pupillage and training

The naval system provides its barristers with a pupillage, bespoke “throughlife” criminal, international and maritime law training and the opportunity to pursue a twin-track career in the law and (for most) maritime logistics. I was fortunate to undertake the majority of my pupillage at 18 Red Lion Court, where I remain a door tenant. I also spent time on my feet with Hampshire CPS, a month at Oxford University on a special course for naval lawyers on operational law (including the law of the sea, the law of armed conflict, international criminal law and the Human Rights Act), and attended the Institute of International Humanitarian Law in San Remo, Italy, alongside military and naval lawyers from other countries.

Naval officer and barrister: the similarities

I learned in pupillage that the traits which make a successful naval officer are pretty similar to those which make a successful barrister. Both professions require the ability to communicate with and listen to people, whether these are subordinates, peers or superiors. Both benefit from mastery of the art of persuasion, whether in legal argument, casework or in motivating sailors to achieve results. Both professions have led me into situations where I have had to deal compassionately with people in difficult circumstances, whether facing stressful litigation or having been evacuated at short notice from a State embroiled in civil war. So the parallels are stronger than they may at first seem. Experience gained in general naval service provides the Navy with legal candidates in whom understanding of life in a disciplined service is instinctive, and who intuitively know their operating environment, whether at sea or ashore. That means the advice we offer our commanders and sailors draws on genuine operational experience and is contextualised and applicable. The Navy’s commitment to training, both academic and practical, ensures quality of output and is, for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

The work of a naval lawyer

The work of a naval lawyer is increasingly diverse and is done across all three Services. Of course, you will still find naval barristers involved in prosecuting and defending in the (now tri-Service) Court Martial. But they also routinely:

  • act as advisers to deployed operational Commanders (whether ashore in environments such as Afghanistan or at sea);
  • advise in discipline and personnel casework;
  • examine the provisions of new legislation affecting maritime operations;
  • advise and assist in the drafting of new Armed Forces legislation; and
  • instruct other members of the Armed Forces in the law of armed conflict.


By the time I began the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) - now the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) - as a student member of Gray’s Inn in September 2006, I had already served in HMS Bulwark, then one of the Navy’s newest warships. As we returned from successful operations in support of Operation TELIC (in Iraq) and counter-piracy and counter-smuggling operations in the Indian Ocean, we were activated to conduct the evacuation of British and entitled personnel from Beirut during the Israel-Hizbollah conflict in the summer of 2006. Bulwark was part of a UK maritime task force which evacuated 2,600 people in total. The security situation was tense to say the least. Israeli forces had made an undertaking that warships conducting evacuation operations would not be attacked but Hizbollah had not.

On an evacuation footing

Proving that lightning can strike twice, we in HMS Cumberland were on our way home from a successful deployment in the Middle East in February this year. At this point, we had already been away from home for five months, conducting energy security patrols, escort duties for the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle while she acted in support of Coalition operations in Afghanistan, and supporting UK Foreign Office initiatives in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other strategic partner States. (Old-fashioned defence diplomacy remains one of the Navy’s most important yet least trumpeted strengths).

On 20 February, on our way north through the Red Sea, we had anticipated a quiet transit through the Mediterranean and a dignified final homecoming before making arrangements for HMS Cumberland’s decommissioning (she was taken as a saving in the Strategic Defence and Security Review in October 2010). However, within 24 hours we were north of the Suez Canal and immediately on an evacuation footing: the situation in Libya was deteriorating and it was plain that trapped Britons (and others) needed a way out. We conducted a rapid visit to Souda Bay in Crete to embark fuel, provisions (including 1.5 tonnes of potatoes!) and additional personnel to assist us in our new mission. We also embarked blankets, life jackets and nappies (the latter unsurprisingly not normally carried by warships) and other medical stores to ensure we were set up, not only to conduct the evacuation from Benghazi, but to sustain our evacuees on the transit to Malta. Wary of the fractious atmosphere ashore, we also embarked extra Royal Marines for force protection. Cumberland evacuated 454 grateful people from Benghazi over the course of three trips, in an ever-changing security environment and with little idea of how we would be received by the local authorities on each arrival in Libya. My remit as Cumberland’s Logistics and Public Relations Officer included the proper registration and recording of all evacuees (essential information for the UK Foreign Office and Border Agency); feeding and sustaining evacuees on the voyage to Malta; provision of medical care where required (through a qualified GP and medical staff, which Cumberland carries) and media handling. Each one of these aspects can feel like a full time job.

A wealth of experience

In the short time since I qualified as a barrister within the Service, I have found the wealth of legal work I have been exposed to fascinating. I worked as a Naval Prosecutor at the time when the organisation merged with its sisters in the Army and Air Force under the new Director of Service Prosecutions, Bruce Holder QC. I have witnessed the demise of the old single service discipline Acts and their replacement by the ground-breaking Armed Forces Act 2006, which brings the Services under a unified jurisdiction for the first time. I have been exposed to and interpreted multi- and bi-lateral jurisdictional agreements applicable to UK forces’ operations overseas. Most recently I was able to provide legal scrutiny of UNSCRs relevant to Cumberland’s operations off Libya. But, in any scenario, operating at sea requires a thorough understanding of applicable maritime law: we must also understand and apply the Geneva Conventions and the other laws of armed conflict. There has rarely been a more interesting time to be involved in any of the Armed Forces’ legal cadres.

A tempting alternative to the self-employed Bar

Although the selection process for legal trainees is entirely internal, that is not to say you cannot join the Navy in order to practise law. I and many others have done so, but you will be required to prove yourself as a naval officer in another discipline (probably logistics) before you can be trained to do so. The Army and Royal Air Force welcome direct applications from appropriately qualified lawyers, but in these Services you will only be employed as a lawyer. So, if you are a bright BVC, or BPTC, graduate with an interest in any or all of the practice areas I have mentioned, you may yet find an Armed Forces career a tempting alternative to the self-employed Bar… especially if you choose the Royal Navy.

Maritime law issues

When can warships enter the territorial waters of another State?

  • How must they execute the right of transit passage in key strategic choke points such as the Straits of Hormuz (at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf)?
  • What is a warship allowed/obliged to do to suppress acts of piracy on the high seas?
  • The Geneva Conventions and the other laws of armed conflict:
  • Who is a combatant and when?
  • What enemy buildings may lawfully be targeted by guided missile attack, and what precautions must be taken before and during such an attack?
  • When is a naval blockade lawful and effective?
  • When does the Human Rights Act apply to the deployed activities of the Armed Forces?