Archie Bishop, maritime lawyer expert in cases involving salvage after disasters at sea – obituary

Archie Bishop when Third Officer in P&O's Salsette
Archie Bishop when Third Officer in P&O's Salsette

Archie Bishop, who has died aged 86, played a central role in the development of international maritime salvage law and practice.

Bishop’s own experience in the Merchant Navy lay behind his later success as a maritime lawyer, specialising in salvage and collision disputes. Aware of the difficulty in negotiating a settlement in collision claims – often because of the lack of reliable witnesses – Bishop realised that clients generally preferred an amicable settlement to an expensive court case. He was a man of great integrity and sound common sense, and he became a skilled litigator.

For centuries the law of salvage at sea was governed by Lloyd’s Open Form (“open” because no specific reward was attached to a salvage claim), which was further governed by a rule of “no cure, no pay” (meaning that a salvor only gets paid if property is recovered).

Then in 1992 the tanker Nagasaki Spirit, after an alleged pirate attack, collided in the Malacca Strait with the container ship Ocean Blessing and crude oil spilled into the sea and caught fire. All but two of some 50 crewmen from both ships perished; Bishop’s handling of the case, on behalf of the insurers, was praised by Richard Sayer of Ince & Co, a frequent opponent in such cases.

The case went through many stages of arbitration and appeals until it reached the House of Lords, which in 1997 ruled that compensation did not include any element of profit for the professional salvors.

The salvage industry felt disappointed by this case and in consequence Bishop, who served on the Lloyd’s of London standing committee which reviewed and revised the Lloyd’s Open Form, pioneered changes in the custom and practice of the law at sea.

Despite resistance from sections of the shipping industry, SCOPIC (Special Compensation Protection and Indemnity Clause) was introduced, meaning that salvors would not only be compensated at a fair rate for their men and equipment, but would also receive salvage rewards if their work limited damage to the environment.

Bishop: charismaBishop: believed in the power of charm and good humour to bring people together
Bishop: believed in the power of charm and good humour to bring people together

William Archie Bishop was born on July 21 1937 in Bridgwater, Somerset, at the Golden Ball Hotel where his father was landlord. Archie’s adventures started early when as a young boy he would spend summers camping with his three older brothers in the Somerset countryside. They would cycle 12 miles from home with their dog Carlo, and their parents would visit at weekends with supplies.

Educated at Colston’s School, Bristol, in 1952 he joined the Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester. Two years later, aged 16, he began his apprenticeship as a cadet in the P&O line.

By 1959 Bishop was a third officer on the new-built cargo ship Salsette, but the following year he joined Holman Fenwick Willan as an articled clerk and was sponsored for six years’ part-time study at Guildford Law College. By 1988 he was senior partner in HFW, a role he described as being “the lone lamp-post in a street full of dogs”. Leading by example, when the payment of retired partners’ pensions out of profits threatened the viability of HFW, Bishop gave up his own rights.

As a lecturer at the International Maritime Law Institute in Malta, he enthralled his audiences with his practical lessons of the law in action. When, during the so-called “tanker war” (part of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war), scores of vessels were damaged, Bishop acted for the salvors, a typical case in 1984 being the Swiss-owned, Liberian-registered super-tanker Tiburon carrying Iranian oil.

Flames spread to the superstructure and two days after the attack the ship was wallowing, with only three foot of hull above the water. Eight crew were killed and three seriously injured, but salvage tugs extinguished the fire and towed Tiburon into Bahrain.

In another case, Bishop acted for the shipowner who wanted to claim salvage on an unexploded missile; he had to explain that there were several legal obstacles, including an obligation to return the missile to its Iraqi owners.

He also told how, in 1997, a Japanese tuna boat was struck by a falling cow. It transpired that some Russians had been disturbed while rustling Kobe beef cattle in northern Japan using a transport plane. They took off in a great hurry, but when the aircraft stalled, the pilot opened the rear door and livestock fell out, one of which entered the boat through the roof of the wheelhouse.

Bishop was an attractive and charismatic man cut from old-fashioned cloth; he believed in the power of charm and good humour to bring people together. He never lost the twinkle in his blue eyes nor the West Country burr in his voice, and he mixed effortlessly with people from all walks of life. His passion for horses led him to go on riding and camping trips in the Rocky Mountains with friends.

Archie Bishop married, first, Joan Sherman. After they divorced, in 1997 he married Annie Edwards, who survives him with a son and daughter from his first marriage and a stepdaughter.

Archie Bishop, born July 21 1937, died February 8 2024