Law: Solicitors try to limit disaster: After raiding a local chandlery for wet-weather gear, a team of London lawyers headed for Shetland. Sharon Wallach reports

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AFTER the grounding of the tanker Braer last week and the oil pollution it caused, the Shetland Islands Council has brought in the City of London law firm Penningtons. Under the general direction of the council's manager of legal services, Ron Lisk, Penningtons will deal with the council's claims and indirectly with claims from the local community.

Brendan Murphy is the firm's partner responsible for co-ordinating the work in Shetland. Aside from the legal issues, the situation presents a range of logistical challenges.

'In a major disaster like this the situation varies day by day, even minute by minute, depending on local conditions,' Mr Murphy says.

Initially a four-strong team from Penningtons flew to Shetland to assess requirements. Mr Murphy was accompanied by Julian Hamilton-Barns, who had previously had dealings with the council, and two shipping lawyers, Peter Allan and partner Hugh Bryant.

'The first thing we had to do was decide how to deal with the resources to hand,' Mr Murphy says. 'The major concerns were the immediate problems caused to the environment and to local industries.'

In conjunction with the council, the firm negotiated an interim payment from the ship's insurers to set up an emergency fund for the islanders. 'We discussed with various oil and insurance funds ways of getting further cash to deal with the critical situation. The council gave some grants in cases of emergency. There is also the broader and long-term question of compensation,' Mr Murphy says.

Everyone involved in the aftermath of the disaster is intent on avoiding litigation. 'We all want to help the islanders,' Mr Murphy says. 'Litigation would just become a bonanza for the lawyers, which no one wants. It's in everyone's interests to sort everything out in a pragmatic and speedy way.'

His programme for the immediate future includes meetings with specialist counsel in England and with the council's Scottish solicitors. 'With the council's blessing, we are also setting up a co-ordinating committee with four or five local lawyers to look at issues affecting local industry. We are also hoping to set up jointly with the council a media network to communicate what's happening on the legal front.'

Mr Allan is installed in Shetland, monitoring the situation day by day and reporting back to London. He is a so-called 'wet man' - a former mariner and experienced on-the-spot investigator. Mr Bryant, the project leader, is a 'dry man', responsible for desk work on specific legal issues.

Mr Bryant describes the practical difficulties that initially faced the Penningtons team. Preparations began with a raid on a City yacht chandlery for wet-weather gear. 'When we were first instructed, none of us had any idea of the geography of the Shetlands,' he says. 'We booked rooms at a hotel that proved to be 60 miles north of Sumburgh Airport, so everyone was driving vast distances round the island.' This was after overcoming the initial problem of finding a car- hire firm undiscovered by the hordes of visiting journalists.

At first, the lawyers had nowhere to work. 'We set up a nineteenth hole in the Queen's Hotel in Lerwick. We worked in the corridor and the hotel lobby for a while, using the hotel's phone on a credit card.'

Communications were very good, Mr Bryant says, in spite of the discovery that radiophones did not work in the north part of Shetland. 'But Vodafone installed a transmitter in Sumburgh the day after we arrived,' he says. Now the lawyers work from offices in the council's legal services department and in the crisis management centre at the airport.

It is hard to tell how long the work will take. 'At the moment, it is assumed it will be at least months,' Mr Bryant says. 'A lot depends on whether litigation will be necessary. If settlement can be arrived at amicably, it will mean quicker payments for people.'

Until 2 1/2 years ago Mr Bryant was an executive for a 'P & I club' (a 'protection and indemnity' association, liability insurers for shipowners). His knowledge of that world and its players is an enormous benefit, he says, and one which doubtless helped Penningtons to win its instructions.

'The council would want to say that it is not seeking in any way to raise the game by involving 'foreign' London lawyers,' Mr Bryant says. 'But with all due deference to our Scottish colleagues, there are few who know their way around P & I, and there aren't many lawyers generally who have actually run a P & I club.'

According to Diana Faber, a shipping lawyer with another City firm, Richards Butler, solicitors are increasingly being asked by underwriters to draw up disaster management systems in advance of any actual incident, prompted largely by the Exxon Valdez case.

'A scheme prepared for a possible oil pollution disaster would cover four main areas,' Ms Faber says. 'The first is a database - a well-developed network of contacts, lawyers, technical experts and so on.'

The second area - the most worrying for many clients - is the public relations side. 'The key is co-ordination. There should be one spokesman responsible for all comments to press and public. What concerns the lawyer is that the outcome of any potential claims should not be prejudiced by the wrong things being said.'

The third element is to set up a base at or near the disaster scene for dealing with claims, particularly the smaller ones. 'For instance, a claim by a fisherman whose net is oiled may seem trivial, but it is important that it is properly handled because his livelihood is involved,' Ms Faber says. The final element of a scheme is provision for co-ordination of information gathered.

Mr Murphy recognises the virtue of having a clear plan, but believes that it is vital to retain flexibility. 'A computerised game plan could lead you head- on into a different sort of disaster,' he says. 'You have to listen to the needs of local people and use your expertise to help ameliorate the situation or provide solutions.'

Far from following a stereotype, dealing with a disaster is state-of-the- art work, Mr Murphy says. 'Having to work out requirements as they arise is very much part of the excitement of the job.'

(Photograph omitted)