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What is Admiralty Jurisdiction?

Christopher John
Christopher John

Admiralty jurisdiction generally refers to the authority of a nation to hear certain types of cases arising from actions that occur on the high seas or other navigable waters. Some examples are cases such as torts or criminal offenses.  The jurisdiction might also extend to contract disputes that relate to maritime law, such as contracts concerning payment of wages to seamen, transportation of persons or cargo, maritime liens or maritime insurance policies.

In order to exercise jurisdiction, a nation typically must have the ability to assert control of the persons or property and the subject matter of the controversy.  If a court lacks specific jurisdiction over a person or the property, then the court will not be able to adjudicate the claims.  These same general principals are true for nations exercising admiralty jurisdiction.

Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone
Businesswoman talking on a mobile phone

The exercise of admiralty jurisdiction establishes admiralty law, which should not be confused with the Law of the Sea.  International law establishes the Law of the Sea, and it governs the relationships between nations with regard to the sea. The Law of the Sea might include navigational rights, exploiting resources of the sea, mineral rights and jurisdiction over coastal waters.

Nations that assert admiralty jurisdiction usually derive such authority from their constitutions or statutes.  Australia, for example, has its source of admiralty jurisdiction from the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act, which was passed in 1890.  This act defines the scope Australia’s jurisdiction.  It also establishes which courts shall exercise such jurisdiction. 

The United States established its admiralty jurisdiction under its Constitution.  It empowers its federal courts to exercise such jurisdiction.  The U.S. decision to confer such jurisdiction with its federal courts ensures a uniform body of admiralty law to promote commerce.  It also avoids the problem of each of its states developing distinct bodies of admiralty law. 

Admiralty law develops from nations exercising admiralty jurisdiction. This type of law regulates the relationships of persons or entities operating vessels on the oceans or other navigable waters.  The character of admiralty law is domestic for each country because each nation applies its own laws to resolve maritime disputes. 

Courts exercising admiralty jurisdiction will refine the scope of such authority in its decisions.  For example, U.S. courts have determined that a party invoking federal admiralty jurisdiction over a tort claim must satisfy two separate conditions concerning location and maritime.  The establishment of this two-part test limits the scope of the court’s jurisdiction.  Prior to this decision, U.S. courts had to determine only that the tort took place on navigable water in order to assert its jurisdiction.

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