An admiralty court is responsible for hearing civil and criminal cases originating on the high seas. This type of court derives its authority from a variety of legal sources, including national constitutions and international agreements. A primary responsibility of an admiralty court is to determine the legitimacy of a ship's country of origin. The prosecution of admiralty law may be carried out by an admiralty court or a federal court assigned admiralty authority. Admiralty courts hear cases dealing with sailor compensation, shipping damages, and property lost at sea.
The origins of the admiralty court extend back to the reign of the Roman Empire. The British established the first formal admiralty courts in the 15th century in response to the country's growing maritime presence. An initial source of authority for admiralty law was a set of traditions and customs dating to the explorations of the Phoenicians. These values were set into law starting in the 18th century by documents like the United States Constitution. Nations concerned about maritime law have also established agreements like the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention to aid admiralty courts.
Every regional and national government with a coastline has authorized courts to hear admiralty cases. The United Kingdom has led the way in terms of dedicating considerable resources to courts focused on admiralty law. These admiralty courts only hear cases within their jurisdiction that deal with maritime issues. The United States and other nations have assigned admiralty court duties to national court systems to avoid overlapping jurisdictions.
The first step for an admiralty court in hearing a case is to determine a ship's country of origin. Every ship operating on the high seas must be registered with a country of origin. This registry means that the ship must wave the country's flag from the deck and follow that country's national maritime laws. An admiralty court must first determine if a ship has a legitimate registration within its jurisdiction before starting a trial.
Admiralty courts assess the legitimacy of grievances by ship captains, crew and operators. For example, an admiralty judge must determine if a sailor's lawsuit against a captain for failing to provide emergency care following injury is legally sound. Another type of case dealt with by admiralty courts is the assessment of damages during accidents. The court can assess financial damages against ship owners and operators guilty of damaging other vessels. An admiralty court can also force a ship owner or operator to provide a reward to an individual responsible for salvaging lost goods.