What Is Maritime (aka Admiralty) Law, and Why Is It Important?

What Is Maritime Law?

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a body of laws, conventions, and treaties that govern private maritime business and other nautical matters, such as shipping or offenses occurring on open water. International rules governing the use of the oceans and seas are known as the Law of the Sea.

Key Takeaways

  • Maritime law governs private maritime questions, disputes, or offenses and other nautical matters.
  • In most developed countries, the maritime law follows a separate code and is an independent jurisdiction from national laws.
  • The International Maritime Organization, or IMO, ensures that existing international maritime conventions are kept up to date and develops new agreements when the need arises.

Understanding Maritime Law

In most developed nations, maritime law follows a separate code and is an independent jurisdiction from national laws. The United Nations (UN), 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.

Conventions are regularly amended to keep up with new business practices and technologies.

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

The IMO (established in 1948 as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization, and coming into force in 1958) is responsible for ensuring that existing international maritime conventions are kept up to date as well as developing new agreements as and when the need arises.

Today, there are dozens of conventions regulating all aspects of maritime commerce and transport. The IMO names three conventions as its core:

  • 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 Watchkeeping for Seafarers

On its website, the IMO has a complete list of existing conventions, historical amendments, and explanatory notes.

The governments of the 175 IMO member states are responsible for the implementation of IMO conventions for ships registered in their nation. Local governments enforce the provisions of IMO conventions as far as their ships are concerned and set the penalties for infringements. In some cases, ships must carry certificates onboard to show that they have been inspected and have met the required standards.

History of Maritime Law

The origins of maritime law can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt. In those days, ships were used to transport goods and a clearly defined set of rules was needed to ensure safety and fair trade and settle disputes between different parties.

However, it wasn’t until much later that the first written record of formal codes can be found. The Rhodian Sea Laws, formed between 900 and 300 B.C., set official rules for the Mediterranean Sea. These laws governed seafaring trade in the area, influenced the Romans and remained in effect for a very long time.

The oldest maritime laws on record were reportedly created on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

European maritime laws gradually evolved over the following centuries. Key developments that helped to shape current laws included the Consulate of the Sea, the Rolls of Oléron, and the early English Admiralty laws, which would later help to shape the laws of the sea in the U.S.

Maritime law arrived in the U.S. in the 1600s. However, it wasn’t until 1789 that federal district courts were given jurisdiction over admiralty law cases and a uniform body of law was created.

Ship Registration Under Maritime Law

The country of registration determines a ship's nationality. For most ships, the national registry is the country where the owners live and operate their business.

Shipowners will often register their ships in countries that allow foreign registration. Called "flags of convenience," the foreign registration is useful for tax planning and to take advantage of lenient local laws. Two examples of "flags of convenience" countries are Panama and Bermuda.

What Is Maritime Law and Why Is it Important?

Maritime law is the body of rules that govern everything that goes on in the sea and open waters. These rules help clear up various disputes that can occur and ensure that the people and organizations that work on the water behave correctly and are protected.

Who Controls Maritime Law?

International maritime law is governed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). A specialized agency of the United Nations, it is the IMO’s job to establish the framework and regulations for the safety, security, and environmental performance of shipping on an international, universal level.

What Is the Difference Between Maritime Law and Law of the Sea?

Maritime law generally applies to private shipping issues, whereas the law of the sea is largely recognized as referring to public international law. In other words, the latter governs how nations should behave in maritime environments.

The Bottom Line

The world’s open seas make up about 70% of the earth’s surface and are important, both as a means of transport and as a resource. Maritime law exists to protect this asset and the people who use it. Without it, there would likely be anarchy and collapse of the global economy.

Article Sources
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