Maritime Law

What is the 'Maritime Law'

Maritime law is a body of laws, conventions and treaties that governs international private business or other matters involving ships, shipping or crimes occurring on open water. Laws between nations governing such things as national versus international waters are considered public international law and are known as the Law of the Seas. Maritime law is also known as "admiralty law."

BREAKING DOWN 'Maritime Law'

In most developed nations, maritime law is governed by a separate code and is a separate jurisdiction from national laws. The United Nations, through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has issued numerous conventions that can be enforced by the navies and coast guards of countries that have signed the treaty outlining these rules. Maritime law governs many of the insurance claims relating to ships and cargo, civil matters between shipowners, seamen and passengers, and piracy.

Additionally, maritime law regulates the registration, license, and inspection procedures for ships and shipping contracts, maritime insurance and the carriage of goods and passengers.

IMO Conventions

The IMO was created in 1958 and is responsible for ensuring that existing international maritime conventions are kept up to date as well as develop new conventions as and when the need arises. Today, there are dozens of conventions regulating all aspects of maritime commerce and transport.

The IMO identifies three of these as its key conventions. They are:

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships

The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping for Seafarers

Conventions are regularly amended to keep up with new business practices and technologies. On its website, the IMO has a complete list of existing conventions, their historical amendments and explanatory notes.


The governments of the of IMO's 171 member states are responsible for the enforcement of IMO conventions for ships of their nationality. Local governments enforce the provisions of IMO conventions as far as their own ships are concerned and set the penalties for infringements. In some cases, ships must carry certificates on board the ship to show that they have been inspected and have met the required standards.

Nationality of Ships

A ship's nationality is determined by the country where it is registered. Most ships are registered in the national registry of the country where their owners reside or operate their business. However, often for reasons of tax planning or to take advantage of more lenient local rules, some owners will register ships in countries that allow foreign ships to be registered. These registries are called "flags of convenience." Two common examples of flags of convenience are Panama and Bermuda.