What is an Admiralty Court?

Nicholas K.

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.

An admiralty court can determine the legitimacy of a ship's country of origin.
An admiralty court can determine the legitimacy of a ship's country of origin.

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.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - Although the article does make it seem like the admiralty courts only concern civil suits I think it is possible that they could prosecute people who have committed crimes and sentence people.

I can see either admiralty courts being able to sentence people or the admiralty courts are only there to figure out the nation of origin for the ships and to assess matters. I have heard a story about a crime being committed in international waters and the federal court in New York City listened to the case and sentenced the person.

It could be one of those legal things where it varies case by case and different courts may be able to do different things depending on the intangibles and facts involved in the case, but it is definitely something that raises a few questions that not many people know about.


@TreeMan - I think that an admiralty court is simply a form of civilian court on the high seas and does not usually sentence people to jail time.

I would have to agree that the military would be the ones that would take care of the punishment for their own and there are scenarios in which both military and admiralty courts would be involved in the matter, but what about civilians?

Say someone were to murder someone else on a ship in international waters, who would have jurisdiction to punish them? Would ti be a federal matter or the closest state court in the United States?


@matthewc23 - Well it would depend on what exactly happened. A civilian court would only be utilized if the military ship involved did something like sink a civilian boat or fire upon it. Now I would think that if something like this were to happen and it resulted in deaths it could become a matter of civil court, which the admiralty would turn the case over to. I do not know this for sure, but I have heard of things like this happening.

As far as who has jurisdiction, well the military courts are their own entity and take care of themselves. They will be the ones that punish the military members, but the admiralty courts will be the ones that decide if there are any damages incurred.

Basically, the admiralty courts will not sentence people in the military to jail. The military courts will take care of that matter and it could lead to a potential court martial.


I have heard about admiralty courts and have always thought that they had something to do with the navy or coast guard. However, I can see that it involves courts concerning civilians on the high seas.

What I have to wonder is when military ships, such as the Navy or Coast Guard are in international waters and something happens that concerns civilian ships, who has jurisdiction in the matter? I am sure that the military courts would have to have a say in the matter, but who is the one that decides fully on the matter in conjunction with the law?

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