Maritime Law

Maritime law deals with the treaties, conventions, and laws related to nautical matters, especially private maritime business. Another often-used term “Law of the Sea” refers to the global rules that apply to seas and oceans.

Important Points:

  • Maritime law deals with private maritime issues, offenses, disputes, and other similar matters.
  • In a large part of the developed world, maritime laws are independent of national laws.
  • The International Maritime Organization (IMO) not only keeps the current laws relevant and up-to-date but also keeps developing new laws and agreements whenever the circumstances demand such actions.

Basics of Maritime Law

Most of the developing nations treat maritime laws separately from national laws. Many conventions of the UN and IMO govern how the navies that are signatories to these conventions can enforce the rules and regulations. Maritime law also dictates how insurance companies work on claims related to cargos and shipments. It also governs civil issues between seamen, ship-owners, passengers, and even pirates.

Maritime law also regulates the issuance of license plates to ships, carrying out inspections, ship registrations, and similar matters. The conventions are updated regularly so that they stay relevant to the times.

The responsibility to keep these conventions updated and create new rules lies with the IMO which was established in 1948 and came into effect in 1958.

While many conventions are governing maritime issues, the IMO lists three conventions that form the basis of maritime law:

  • 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

You can find a detailed list of all the existing IMO conventions on its website, together with all amendments as well as explanatory notes.

The responsibility of enforcing the IMO conventions lies with the IMO member nations. The local governments are responsible for enforcing the IMO conventions on their ships. These conventions not only include penalties for infringement but also require ships to carry certifications with them at all times. These certifications include regular inspections and safety standards among other things.

Special Considerations

Each ship is assigned a nationality, which is the same as the country where the ship is registered. In most cases, the ship is registered in the country where the owner resides or operates his business. In some cases, however, ship owners register their ships in foreign countries.

In almost all cases, this is done to lower tax payments and hence save money. Bermuda and Panama are two favorable countries in this regard.

Differences between Admiralty Law and Maritime Law

For almost all practical purposes, both admiralty law and maritime law refer to the same thing and are used to convey the same meaning. They encompass several admiralty cases related to contracts, offenses, injuries, and torts.

The Jurisdiction of Admiralty/Maritime Law

The jurisdiction of admiralty issues lies with the federal courts. The statutes of federal admiralty are well documented and contain guidelines on how to deal with maritime issues. Even though admiralty cases are by their very nature federal, they are sometimes carried out in state courts.

Originally, admiralty laws were specific to the Royal Navy. However, with the passage of time, the distinction between admiralty and maritime cases lost its significance and both terms were increasingly used for the same type of cases.

While there are many reasons or the existence of admiralty laws, one main reason is the protection of workers working at the seas. For a particular injury to be claimed under maritime law, it must fulfill the following three conditions:

  • A vessel was involved in the accident that resulted in the injury
  • The incident occurred on navigable waters
  • When the injury occurred, the worker was carrying out duties in accordance with his job description or contract

Deciding whether a particular injury meets these three conditions is not easy. Some cases are very complex and hard to make a decision on, making maritime injury claims a complex part of the law.

Let’s take a small example. A worker is injured due to a fire that resulted due to a malfunctioning washer on a ship. This would fall under a maritime claim but who decides whether this can be called a matter of admiralty?

Legal Terminology

It is hard to create legal definitions in maritime law. Even basic words like navigable waters and vessels are hard to define and are a matter of debate. For instance, the term vessel is often understood as a term depicting the type of ship but the relationship of a worker to the ship and the type of his job are necessary considerations when defining the term vessel.

Here are a few examples of vessels:

  • yachts;
  • fishing boats;
  • tugboats;
  • towboats;
  • tankers;
  • dredges;
  • supply/cargo ships;
  • barges;
  • crew boats;
  • offshore oil rigs.

An incident being claimed under admiralty law also needs to have taken place in navigable waters.

Here is a list of areas that are considered navigable waters:

  • bayous;
  • oceans;
  • rivers;
  • lakes;
  • Adjacent harbors.

Due to the complexity of maritime issues, these cases are decided on a case-by-case basis.

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