Maritime law | Britannica

Maritime law

Alternate titles: admiralty, admiralty law
print Print
Please select which sections you would like to print:
While every effort has been made to follow citation style rules, there may be some discrepancies. Please refer to the appropriate style manual or other sources if you have any questions.
Select Citation Style
Corrections? Updates? Omissions? Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article (requires login).
Thank you for your feedback

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
External Websites
Britannica Websites
Articles from Britannica Encyclopedias for elementary and high school students.

Maritime law, also called admiralty law, or admiralty, the body of legal rules that governs ships and shipping.

In English-speaking countries, “admiralty” is sometimes used synonymously, but in a strict sense the term refers to the jurisdiction and procedural law of courts whose origins may be traced to the office of Admiral. Although etymologically maritime law and “law of the sea” are identical, the former term is generally applied to private shipping law, whereas the latter, usually prefixed by “international,” has come to signify the maritime segment of public international law. The Convention on the Law of the Sea, on the other hand, is a UN agreement regarding territorial waters, sea lanes, and ocean resources. The Convention was originally signed by 119 nations on Dec. 10, 1982.

Historical development

From the fact that the ancient Egyptians engaged in shipping on a wide scale, it can be inferred that they had at least rudimentary laws regulating that activity, although no trace of any has been found thus far. Nor is there anything known of any maritime laws of the Phoenicians, who succeeded the Egyptians as commercial leaders in the Mediterranean. That Rhodes was a major source of maritime law, however, is clearly indicated in two passages from the Digest (ad 533) of the Roman emperor Justinian. The first quotes the emperor Antoninus (reigned ad 138–161) in a case of plunder following a shipwreck: “I am indeed lord of the world, but the Law is the lord of the sea. This matter must be decided by the maritime law of the Rhodians, provided that no law of ours is opposed to it.” The second is a statement of the basic law of “general average,” which the Digest attributes to the Rhodians. “Average” here means any loss sustained by a vessel or its cargo. When one segment of a maritime venture is sacrificed to save the others, the average is described as general, and the owners of the property saved must help make good the loss. Thus, if cargo is jettisoned in a successful effort to refloat a grounded vessel, the owners of the vessel and of the cargo saved are obliged to bear proportionate shares of the loss sustained by the owner of the cargo singled out for sacrifice.

Rome did not become a maritime power until the Punic wars of the 3rd century bc. From the fact that the Romans were allies of the Rhodians and from the references in the Digest, it is logical to assume that Roman maritime law borrowed heavily from that of Rhodes. Acknowledging Rhodes as the birthplace of maritime jurisprudence, the maritime code of the later Eastern Empire, dating from the 7th or 8th century ad, was called the “Rhodian Sea Law.”

Because the Mediterranean, under Roman control, was not only the centre of the Western world but also its principal commercial highway, European maritime law evolved as a uniform, supranational, comprehensive body of law—a characteristic which, though sometimes threatened by the spread of nationalism, has never been lost completely. The barbarian invaders who moved south were not seafarers, and the principal Mediterranean seaports were thus able to maintain their independence. Moreover, the conquered peoples were permitted to keep the Roman law to which they had become accustomed, and in the field of maritime jurisprudence the transition into the Middle Ages was therefore gradual. As certain Italian cities began to outstrip the Eastern Byzantine Empire commercially, they formulated their own maritime laws, some dating as early as 1063. Trani, Amalfi, Venice, and other Italian port cities all offered their own collections of laws. Nevertheless, the next widely accepted body of sea laws was the Consolat de Mar, or “Consulate of the Sea,” originally compiled at Barcelona in the 13th century. More elaborate than the earlier codes, the Consolat was followed in Spain, Provence, and the Italian cities and had a significant effect on the development of modern maritime law.

The earliest code to emerge beyond the Mediterranean was the “Rolls of Oléron,” named for an island in the Bay of Biscay and apparently dating from the 12th century. Whether the Rolls were of French or of Anglo-Norman origin, they became the nucleus of the maritime law not only of England and France but also of Scotland, Flanders, Prussia, and Castile; and they are still occasionally cited as authority, even by U.S. courts. The Rolls were closely followed in the Laws of Wisby, headquarters of the Hanseatic League until 1361.

In continental Europe, loss of uniformity in the maritime law began with the late Renaissance and accelerated with the rise of nationalism in the 17th century, which witnessed adoption of the Maritime Code of Christian XI of Sweden (1667), the Marine Ordinances of Louis XIV of France (1681), and the Code of Christian V of Denmark (1683). Of these, the most significant were the Ordinances, prepared under Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as part of his comprehensive though unfulfilled plan for the codification of all French law. Established customs of the sea, revised to suit the times, were made part of the national law, enforceable in the French Admiralty Court, which was granted maritime jurisdiction to the exclusion of the old consular courts, whose judges had been elected by the mariners themselves.

The individuality of the maritime law—its “separation” from other types of law—was accentuated by the Ordinances, which gathered together in one code all of the criminal, private, procedural, and public laws relating to the sea. Although the French Admiralty Court failed to survive the Revolution that began in 1789, the substantive law embodied in the Ordinances was very closely followed in the Code de Commerce, whose adoption in 1807 meant that the maritime law was thereafter considered simply as a branch of commercial law, with consequent diminution of the weight previously given to custom and usage. Furthermore, abolition of the Admiralty Court resulted in the trial of maritime cases by the commercial courts, on which, in the smaller ports, maritime interests might not be represented. In countries with codes based directly or indirectly on the French commercial code, civil maritime cases, as well as nonmaritime commercial disputes, are heard and decided by commercial courts.

Although the Code de Commerce was widely adopted in the first half of the 19th century, in some cases by choice and in others by conquest, the German Commercial Code of 1861, revised in 1897, marked a departure from French law, and revisions of the Spanish and Italian codes showed the influence of the new German law. These, in turn, had their effect in countries under Italian and Spanish influence.

Although the “Pied Poudre” courts, held primarily for the settlement of disputes at English fairs and markets, also had special jurisdiction of seamen’s cases, it is probable that the first English tribunals to apply maritime law, with the Rolls of Oléron as a basis, were the courts of the Cinque Ports. The High Court of Admiralty, which sat at London, and the Vice Admiralty Courts, set up in the other ports, were a later development. They were named after the admiral, an officer whose duties were at first solely administrative and military but were broadened early in the 14th century to include disciplinary proceedings in such matters as piracy. The Admiralty Court is considered as dating from 1360, when for the first time the admiral was expressly granted jurisdiction in civil maritime cases. By the end of the 16th century the admiralty courts had come to exercise an extremely wide jurisdiction, reaching far beyond saltwater transportation into many areas of commercial law. But during the first half of the 17th century, the judges of the common-law courts succeeded in divesting their competitors in the Admiralty of their commercial jurisdiction and in restricting them to the adjudication of “things done upon the sea.”

The Admiralty was a royal court with valuable emoluments. It functioned without the aid of juries, following procedures borrowed from the Continent that were somewhat less dilatory and cumbersome than those of the common-law courts, and applied the laws and customs of the sea to the maritime controversies that came before it. For these reasons it was preferred by the merchants and favoured by the Crown, which depended to a considerable extent on taxation of the merchants for its revenues. Its jurisdiction therefore waxed and waned with the strength or weakness of the reigning sovereign. Thus, it enjoyed wide jurisdiction under the Tudors, but its powers were severely curtailed under succeeding monarchs and governments, and were never fully restored until the passage of the first of the Admiralty Court Acts in the 19th century.

Although the powers of the English Admiralty are today quite broad, in practice it is rare for cases other than those involving marine collisions and salvage to be brought before it. Controversies respecting charter parties, ocean bills of lading, and marine insurance, for example, are more generally brought before the Commercial Court.

In the United States, the federal district courts are by statute granted original jurisdiction, “exclusive of the courts of the States,” of “Any civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.” This means, essentially, that if a maritime claimant wishes to have his claim litigated in accordance with admiralty procedure he must invoke the admiralty jurisdiction of the district courts. However, he is free to sue in a state court, unless the defendant is a citizen of another state, in which case the suit may be tried as an ordinary civil action in the district court.