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Southampton Law School

The Rotterdam Rules: modernising the global container trade

The University of Southampton’s Institute of Maritime Law (IML) has played an important role in the academic research underpinning the development of a new international convention which, if it comes into force, may govern the $18 trillion global containerized trade.

The new international legal regime - the so-called Rotterdam Rules - has dramatically altered the scope of regulatory intervention in the sector and affected the rights and liabilities of shippers, carriers, receivers and insurers across maritime and multimodal transport worldwide. A global provider of CPD training, the IML continues to play an important part in explaining the new Rules to industry players and advising on how best to cope with the potential impact of future change.

Research challenge

The last two decades have witnessed explosive growth in the global container trade. Since the containers are designed for multi-modal carriage, that is they can be transhipped from one means of transport to another (ships, trucks, trains) without unpacking their contents, they have had a huge impact in reducing carriage costs of goods while increasing speed, volume and efficiency. In 2012 the World Trade Organisation estimated that more than 90 per cent of global trade, worth some $18 trillion, was carried in containers, almost all using more than one mode of transport.

However, international regulation has failed to keep up with the pace of change and, since the 1970s, the lack of a global or even regional regime setting out the duties and liabilities of multi-modal transport operators has been identified as an obstacle to world trade both by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and by the European Union.


The European Commission asked the IML to undertake research in 1998-99 and 2005-06. The work was funded by consultancy contracts between the IML and the Commission. The researchers examined some of the fundamental assumptions made in the past by reformers, notably whether a uniform liability system was preferable to the traditional network approach adopted by the most common standard form contracts in use.

A critical aim was to reconcile the positions of carriers and shippers/receivers, that is those providing transport services and those paying for such services, with all the complications arising from issues such as liability for items lost or damaged, and the related insurance issues.

Our solution

Dr Regina Asariotis, who left the IML in 2002, was the principal investigator for the 1998-99 research and led the consultations it involved with industry players. Together with Mikis Tsimplis, Professor of Law and Ocean Sciences, her work focused on American resistance to international uniformity. Their conclusions were critical of the US draft statute, the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) 1999, which set out to define unilaterally the balance of rights and responsibilities between shippers of cargo and ship-owners involved in transport to and from the US.

Filippo Lorenzon, who joined the IML in 2002 and is its director until 2014, led the 2005-06 research, which also included industry consultations and international academic exchanges. Other researchers were Yvonne Baatz, Professor of Maritime Law, who joined Southampton in 1991, Charles Debattista, who joined in 1982 and was Professor of Commercial Law until 2011, Professor Hilton Staniland, who joined in 2008, Dr Andrew Serdy, a Reader in law who joined in 2005, and John Dunt, a Senior Visiting Research fellow who joined in 2008.

Southampton researchers contributed substantially to the debate underpinning the new global liability regime devised to replace a system which has struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change.

Published in 2009, The Rotterdam Rules: a practical annotation, is the fruit of cooperative research within the IML, and has lead to a number of subsequent articles on the topic. The work is frequently cited in academic research and the criticisms made in these publications are implicitly addressed in policy papers worldwide.

Our impact

The IML’s research has had a continuing impact on analysis and assessment of the development of a new international liability regime for maritime and multi-modal transport operators. Formally titled the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea, the Rotterdam Rules were approved by the UN General Assembly on 11 December 2008, with a signing ceremony held in Rotterdam on 23 September 2009.

The new Rules were influenced by the IML’s research for the EU Commission, in particular the two reports proposing a new uniform liability regime: Intermodal Transportation and Carrier Liability (1999), and Implementation of the Freight Integrator Action Plan (2006). Numerous references to these reports can be found in EU Commission working papers and policy statements. The IML has been involved in drafting key industry documents to help inform and prepare legal practitioners for the impact of the new Rules.

Other examples of the IML’s continued involvement in policy formulation and implementation include being asked in 2010 by the UK government to help draw up the British Maritime Law Association’s position on the Rotterdam Rules, and provide expert advice on their ratification for the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Services.

The IML runs regular Continuing Professional Development courses on the legal impact of the Rotterdam Rules, and held two workshops in London in 2009 on the practical implications for transport and insurance practitioners. The IML has also published the first complete commentary on the new Rules, a work which has been extensively cited by legal experts leading the international debate on the subject.

List of all staff members in
Staff Member Primary Position
Andrew Serdy Professor of Public International Law and Ocean Governance
John Dunt Visiting Fellow
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