maritime law

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maritime law

maritime law, system of law concerning navigation and overseas commerce. Because ships sail from nation to nation over seas no nation owns, nations need to seek agreement over customs related to shipping. From such agreements between nations has grown a body of customs and usages that is the basis for maritime law. It was, in origin, based on customs only, but it felt the influence of the Roman civil law. In the later Middle Ages, when traders were more and more venturous in crossing the waters, the rules of the sea were compiled into widely recognized collections such as the Consolato del mare [consulate of the sea], The Rolls of Oléron or The Laws of Oléron, and the English Black Book of the Admiralty. In England, special courts were set up to administer the law under the high court of admiralty. The Judicature Act of 1873 abolished these courts and assigned their functions to the high court of justice. In the United States the Constitution gives the federal courts authority in “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.” This jurisdiction covers all maritime contracts, torts, injuries or offenses, and questions of prize. In cases of collision at sea, the parties may under the Judiciary Act of 1789 bring suits at common law; otherwise all maritime cases come to the federal courts. The jurisdiction extends to all navigable waters of the United States, and much of the law is now governed by federal statutes. Though maritime law is general in character, only those parts that determine the relations among nations—particularly those that deal with problems arising on the seas in wartime, such as questions of belligerency and neutrality—are part of the international law proper. See admiralty; blockade; piracy; privateering; seas, freedom of the; London, Declaration of; Paris, Declaration of. See also sea, law of the.


See H. Reiff, The United States and the Treaty Law of the Sea (1959); R. P. Anand, The Origin and Development of the Law of the Sea (1983); R. R. Churchill and A. V. Lowe, The Law of the Sea (2d ed. 1988).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Maritime Law


in the broad sense, the body of legal rules regulating relations that arise in the course of commercial and military navigation, fishing and the hunting of marine animals, the extraction of biological and mineral resources from the sea, and scientific investigations at sea.

The first collections of more or less fully developed maritime law date from the 11th to the 14th century, when international economic ties were growing. K. Marx and F. Engels noted that Amalfi, the first medieval city to conduct extensive maritime trade, developed the rules of maritime law known as the Amalfi Tables (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 63). Other collections of the maritime laws of a particular country include the Novgorod Skra, the Wisby Tables, the Rolls of Oleron, and the Barcelona Naval Law Code.

There are now three branches of maritime law: national maritime law; public international maritime law, governing contracts and agreements between countries and also their customary laws for regulating various types of international maritime relations; and private international maritime law, which includes both the conflicts rules of a particular country and the rules of international agreements in which the country participates.

The maritime law of the USSR regulates commercial, military, and scientific navigation, fishing and the hunting of marine animals, and the extraction of marine mineral and other resources and defines the status of internal and territorial waters under USSR sovereignty, contiguous zones (the part of the high seas adjacent to the territorial waters), the sea floor of the contiguous zones, and the continental shelf.

Soviet maritime law is based on decrees of the Council of People’s Commissars issued between 1918 and 1921, including a decree of Jan. 23, 1918, nationalizing the merchant fleet, a declaration of Feb. 27, 1918, establishing the Department of Water Transport to direct the maritime and river merchant fleets and water transport, a decree of May 28, 1918, establishing a 12-mile limit for the territorial waters of the Soviet state, and a decree of May 30, 1921, on maritime transport. The principles of Soviet maritime law have been further elaborated in the 1929 and 1968 Merchant Shipping Codes of the USSR; in the normative acts of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, the Ministry of the Maritime Fleet, and the Ministry of Fishing; and in numerous international agreements on such matters as navigation, fishing, and the hunting of marine animals.

Cooperation between the USSR and the other socialist countries in shipping is regulated by rules worked out within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), for example, the 1972 General Conditions for Delivery of Maritime Tonnage and Foreign-trade Cargoes of COMECON Countries.

The term “public international maritime law” refers to the body of international contractual and customary norms regulating relations between states pertaining to the use of the ocean. Modern public international maritime law is based on the principle of freedom of the high seas, according to which all states and nations have an equal right to use the ocean, and on the principle of compromise between the rights of maritime and landlocked countries.

The most important documents of international maritime law are the UN Charter; the 1958 Geneva conventions on the territorial sea and contiguous zone, on the high seas, on the continental shelf, and on fishing and conservation of the living resources of the high seas; the 1910 Brussels and 1960 London conventions on assistance and rescue at sea; and the 1954, 1969, and 1972 conventions on preventing pollution of the sea by petroleum and other substances.

Private international maritime law regulates the relations of state agencies and physical and legal persons with foreign state agencies and physical and legal persons with respect to commercial navigation. It governs contracts for shipping of cargo, time-charters, passenger carriage, towing, port services for vessels and maritime transport clients, general and particular average, compensation for losses resulting from ship collisions, marine insurance, and hearings by courts and arbitration tribunals of maritime claims and suits. The legal rules of private international maritime law are contained in the domestic laws of some states and in international agreements.

The discrepancies among the maritime laws of different countries and the incompleteness of the legal rules governing merchant shipping necessitate international unification of the rules of maritime law. Such unification is usually achieved through international agreements, for example, the 1910 International Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to Collisions Between Vessels (amended in 1960) and the York-Antwerp Rules.


Volkov, A. A. Morskoe pravo. Moscow, 1969.
Aktual’nye problemy sovremennogo mezhdunarodnogo morskogo prava. Moscow, 1972.
Novoe v mezhdunarodnom morskom prave. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

maritime law

[′mar·ə‚tīm ′lȯ]
Law that concerns navigation and commerce on the oceans and other navigable bodies of water.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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