An admiralty court is any court with jurisdiction over maritime law, which hears shipping, ocean and sea legal cases, whether or not the court is officially titled admiralty court or granted official jurisdiction over admiralty cases. While historically admiralty courts were separate courts, in modern times official jurisdiction for admiralty law generally falls under part of the regular court system, usually a federal or superior level court.

Breaking Down Admiralty Court

Admiralty courts are those that exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries or offenses relating to maritime law and events on the high seas. Generally, admiralty courts will hear civil actions. The courts can thus hear a range of cases covering shipping, boating, insurance matters related to either ships or their cargo, collisions at sea, civil matters involving seamen, passengers, and cargo, salvage claims, claims for damages by ships, disputed ownership of ships and marine pollution. Admiralty courts can also issue a maritime lien against a ship, allowing the court or its appointees to arrest and seize the ship to settle claims against it. Whether it can be seized in other countries is governed by the admiralty courts of those countries and any treaties that may be in effect.

History of Admiralty Courts

Historically, admiralty courts dated back centuries. In England, for example, admiralty courts date back to the mid-1300s. At the time, they were under the jurisdiction of the admirals, hence their name. In the United States, which has a much shorter history of maritime law than Europe, the founders envisaged from the start that federal courts would have jurisdiction over admiralty law, since maritime matters often involved questions of national importance, and this was enshrined in the Constitution.

More recently and more generally, jurisdiction for matters falling under admiralty courts has been given over to regular court systems within most countries, usually a federal or superior court. In the United States jurisdiction is under federal district courts, in Canada under the Federal Court, and in the U.K. under the High Court. When such courts hear matters relating to admiralty law, however, they are still usually referred to as admiralty courts. In the U.S., when federal courts act as admiralty courts, they do not use juries and have unique rules of court.