What Is an Admiralty Court?

An admiralty court is a tribunal with jurisdiction over maritime law, including cases regarding shipping, ocean, and sea laws. Historically, admiralty courts were a separate part of the court system. In modern times, these cases may be assigned within the regular court system, usually at the federal or Superior Court level.

In the U.S., any court that is hearing a maritime case is an admiralty court for the duration of that case.

Understanding the Admiralty Court

An admiralty court hears shipping, ocean, and sea legal cases. The definition of such cases is broad, encompassing contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses relating to maritime law and events that occur on the high seas.

Key Takeaways

  • An admiralty court hears a wide range of cases related to maritime law.
  • In the U.S., any federal court may be designated an admiralty court for the purposes of the case under consideration.
  • Cases heard in admiralty court are generally civil, not criminal.

The courts thus hear a range of cases covering shipping, boating, insurance matters related to 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 even marine pollution cases.

Generally, modern admiralty courts hear civil actions, not criminal cases.

Admiralty courts have the power to issue a maritime lien against a ship, allowing the court or its appointees to 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 also is subject to any treaties that may be in effect among the nations involved.

History of Admiralty Courts

Admiralty courts date back to the mid-14th century in England. At that time, they were under the jurisdiction of Navy admirals, hence the name.

Much later, regional Vice-Admiralty courts were established across the British Empire to resolve commercial disputes between merchants and seamen. During wartimes, their powers were expanded to deal with such matters as impounded enemy ships and criminal smuggling operations.

In the U.S., the founders envisaged from the start that federal courts would have jurisdiction over admiralty law since maritime matters often involved questions of national importance. This point is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

The admiralty court has its origins in 14th century England. The judges were admirals.

Jurisdiction for matters that once fell under admiralty courts has been given over to regular court systems in most modern countries, usually at the federal or Superior Court level.

In Canada, the jurisdiction resides with the Federal Court. In the U.K. the Admiralty Court is now one part of the Business and Property Court under the High Court.

To this day, when such courts hear matters relating to admiralty law they will be referred to as admiralty courts. In the U.S., when federal courts act as admiralty courts, they operate under unique maritime law rules and do not impanel juries. The cases are heard by a judge.