Understanding Maritime Law
Maritime Law refers to a branch of law relating to commerce and navigation on the high seas and on other navigable waters. Specifically, the term refers to the body of customs, legislation, international treaties, and court decisions pertaining to ownership and operation of vessels, transportation of passengers and cargo on them, and rights and obligations of their crews while in transit.
The origins of maritime law go back to antiquity. Because no country has jurisdiction over the seas, it has been necessary for nations to reach agreements regarding ways of dealing with ships, crews, and cargoes when disputes arise. The earliest agreements were probably based on a body of ancient customs that had developed as practical solutions to common problems. Many of these customs became part of Roman civil law. After the fall of the Roman Empire, maritime commerce was disrupted for about 500 years.
After maritime activity was resumed in the Middle Ages, various disputes arose and laws were formulated to deal with them. Gradually the laws of the sea were compiled; among the best-known collections of early maritime law are the Laws of Oleron and the Black Book of the Admiralty, an English compilation prepared during the 14th and 15th centuries. Special courts to administer sea laws were set up in some countries. In Britain today, maritime law is administered by courts of the admiralty.
The U.S. According to provisions in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. maritime law is administered by federal courts that have jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, injuries, offenses, and torts. Maritime causes are deemed to be those directly affecting commerce on navigable waters that form a continuous highway to foreign countries. In any dispute the fact that commerce is practiced only on waters within a single state does not necessarily affect the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Many aspects of maritime law are now governed by federal statutes and thus are no longer dependent upon the constitutional power of Congress to regulate commerce.
The Scope of Maritime Law
Liability for common-law wrongs is enforced by the maritime law of the United States and the United Kingdom. Maritime torts include all illegal acts or direct injuries arising in connection with commerce and navigation occurring on navigable waters, including negligence and the wrongful taking of property. The law permits recovery only for actual damages. Maritime law also recognizes and enforces contracts and awards damages for failure to fulfill them.
The adjustment of the rights of the parties to a maritime venture in accordance with the principles of general average, which pertain to the apportioning of loss of cargo, is also an important function of maritime courts, and the doctrines pertaining to general average are among the most important of the maritime law. The British admiralty courts have acquired jurisdiction by statute over crimes committed on the high seas outside the territorial waters of the United Kingdom. Similar jurisdiction has been conferred by Congress on the U.S. federal district courts. International agreements have been made to handle the problems of safety at sea, pollution control, salvage, rules for preventing collisions, and coordination of shipping regulations.
International Ocean Law
Some aspects of ocean law affect relationships among nations. Issues of neutrality and belligerency that occur in wartime are dealt with in international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982 but not yet in force, addresses ocean law issues, including rights of navigation and overflight, fishing, marine scientific research, seabed minerals development, and marine environmental protection. It allows each coastal nation to exercise sovereignty over a territorial sea up to 12 nautical miles (22 km/14 mi) wide and jurisdiction over resources, scientific research, and environmental protection in an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles (370 km/230 mi) offshore; beyond this zone, seabed minerals development will be regulated by an international body. The U.S. has not signed the accord because it objects to the system for minerals development in the international seabed, but it has generally endorsed all other provisions of the convention.