Admiralty Court Details

The law governing matters concerning water navigation, shipping, and maritime disputes is called admiralty law or maritime law. Admiralty courts have jurisdiction over maritime suits and hear cases related to shipping, sea laws, and ocean. They generally handle civil cases, and not criminal cases, and anything that falls under admiralty law. Legally, the following issues are covered under admiralty law: waters, shipping, navigation, commerce, insurance, canals, piers and docks, seamen, towage, wharves, maritime liens, and recreation. Hijacking of ships (piracy) is also within the scope of admiralty.

Federal district courts in the US have jurisdiction over all maritime and admiralty actions. In Canada, the Federal court has jurisdiction over admiralty cases. In the UK, the admiralty court is under the High Court and part of the Business and Property Court. Judges usually hears the cases, and there is no panel of juries.

An admiralty lawyer can represent their client in court and argue on various matters. They also provide legal assistance by helping in the drafting and writing of contracts, providing legal advice on maritime laws, and defending clients who have been accused of going against maritime laws. Businesses that have maritime operations can benefit from the services of such lawyers should they have a case to answer in an admiralty court.

Real World Example of Admiralty Court

In the early days of the admiralty court, specifically the 1700-1800s, "prize cases" dealt with capturing an enemy merchant ship during battles or other forms of conflict. Nations would hire "privateers" to do so. A privateer is a private vessel commissioned to engage in naval warfare. Privateers would bring captured vessels back to the pier, where it would then become a matter of admiralty court. In admiralty court, a judge would determine the worth of the contents of the captured vessel. The judge would then pay the privateer their share of the bounty for their services.

A 1794 US Supreme Court ruling, The Sloop Betsey, ruled that district courts would handle all prize cases in US waters. The Neutrality Act confirmed this ruling. We don't hear too much about prize cases anymore. After the War of 1812, the maritime laws surrounding prizes tightened up. Congress ruled that the President was forbidden to commission privateers to do this work. The practice was banned altogether in European countries in 1856. There were a few cases extending into the Spanish-American war of 1896, but the practice pretty much remains a dead one.

History of Admiralty Courts

In the past, admiralty courts were separate from the main courts, or common law courts. In the UK, admirals acted as the judges over maritime cases, therefore the name "admiralty." These first cases traditionally tried the offending vessel as opposed to individuals. Over time, jurisdiction over such cases has been passed to regular courts (federal courts or Superior Courts).