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What Is Admiralty Law?

The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat cannot claim any goods they find on a vessel they have rescued.
Admiralty law concerns international shipping vessels as well as private seafaring vessels.
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  • Written By: Brenda Scott
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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Admiralty law, also called maritime law, is a body of domestic and private international laws that govern ocean commerce, navigation, shipping, seaman, passengers and cargo, towage, wharves, peers, docks, insurance, maritime liens, and in some countries, inland waters. It is different from the Laws of the Sea, which is a code of public international law governing coastal water jurisdiction, navigational and mineral rights, and international relations. The flag flown by a ship determines what national laws govern it; ships with an Italian flag answer to Italian law, while US ships are governed by US admiralty regulations.

The existence of admiralty or maritime codes predates the Roman and Byzantium empires. Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother and regent of King Richard, introduced admiralty law to England in the 12th century, and many of those precepts are still in force. Common law countries, such as Canada, India, and Pakistan, follow English statutes. In the US, federal courts were assigned authority of admiralty issues by the Constitution.

Other concepts include the responsibility of a ship owner to provide reasonable care for passengers injured aboard ships and liability for damage to cargo while in transit. Admiralty courts provide an avenue for banks and vendors to file a lien against a ship to ensure payment when they loan money or provide goods. Examples of suits taken before admiralty courts include reimbursement for damaged cargo, injured seaman, ship collisions, and maritime pollution and salvage claims.

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Salvage is the rescue of imperiled goods or other property at sea. Distressed or sunken ships are not fair game for treasure hunters, but a salvage crew can receive an award if the requirements of admiralty law are met. One initial requirement is that the owner of the ship has the first right to salvage the vessel and its goods. If the sole owner of everything that has been lost does not wish to recover the cargo and the ship does not pose a hazard or risk to the environment, he can refuse to allow someone else the right to salvage. If an owner intentionally abandons his claim to the property, or cannot be located by the appropriate governmental authority, then a salvage crew may be allowed to keep the property, depending upon the law in that jurisdiction.

Three additional requirements must be met before a claim for a salvage award can be made. First, the goods must be in peril, and secondly, the salvager must be acting in a voluntary capacity and not in the line of duty. For example, if a Coast Guard ship rescues a commercial vessel, the government does not have a claim to an award. In this case, the act is not voluntary, but simply one of duty. The third requirement is success; a salvager is not paid for effort alone.

Because shipping is a primary vehicle of international commerce, it has always been beneficial to have consistency in the admiralty codes of different nations. In the late 1800s, the International Maritime Committee (IMC) was formed, and became the primary international maritime organization until the UN sponsored International Maritime Organization (IMO) took over that role in the 1970s. The IMO is currently responsible for developing international collision regulations and safety standards for seamen, search and rescue, and transportation of hazardous goods.

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