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What is maritime law?

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a body of laws, conventions and treaties that govern private maritime affairs and other nautical matters, such as navigation or offenses committed in water free. International rules governing the use of the oceans and seas are known as the law of the sea.

Key points to remember

  • Maritime law governs private maritime matters, disputes or torts and other nautical matters.
  • In most developed countries, maritime law follows a separate code and is a jurisdiction independent of 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.

Understand maritime law

In most developed countries, maritime law follows a separate code and is a jurisdiction independent of national laws. The United Nations (UN)through the International Maritime Organization (IMO)has published many conventions that can be applied by the navies and coast guards of the countries that have signed the treaty setting out these rules.

The agreements are regularly modified to keep up with new business practices and technologies.

Maritime law governs many of the insurance claims concerning ships and freight; civil cases between shipowners, sailors and passengers; and piracy. In addition, maritime law regulates the procedures for registering, licensing and inspecting ships and maritime transport contracts; marine insurance; and the transport of goods and passengers.

The IMO (created in 1948 as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization and entered into force in 1958) is responsible for ensuring that existing international maritime conventions are kept up to date and for developing new agreements in if needed.

Today, there are dozens of conventions regulating all aspects of maritime commerce and shipping. 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 comprehensive list of existing conventions, historical amendments and explanatory notes.

The governments of the 175 IMO member states are responsible for implementing IMO conventions for ships registered in their country. Local governments enforce the provisions of IMO conventions with respect to their ships and set penalties for violations. In some cases, vessels must have certificates on board stating that they have been inspected and meet the required standards.

History of maritime law

The origins of maritime law date back to ancient Egypt. At that time, 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 is only much later that the first written record of formal codes can be found. The Rhodian Sea Laws, formed between 900 and 300 BC, established official rules for the Mediterranean Sea. These laws governed maritime trade in the region, influenced the Romans and remained in force for a very long time.

The oldest maritime laws on record are said to have been created on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

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

Maritime law came to the United States in the 1600s. However, it was not until 1789 that federal district courts were given jurisdiction over admiralty law cases and a uniform body of law has been created.

Registration of ships under maritime law

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

Shipowners often register their ships in countries that allow foreign registration. Called “flags of convenience”, registering overseas 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 set of rules that govern everything that happens at sea and in open waters. These rules help clarify various disputes that may arise and ensure that people and organizations working on the water behave properly 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, the IMO’s mission is to establish the framework and regulations for the safety, security and environmental performance of maritime transport at an international and universal level.

What is the difference between maritime law and the law of the sea?

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

The essential

The open seas of the world 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 probably be anarchy and collapse of the world economy.

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