As lawyers who specialize in maritime law, we encounter many people who were unaware that the rules that govern the seas vary so greatly from the “law of the land.” While on land, it is easy to determine the governing body or the laws under which you are subject. For incidents occurring in international waters determining the governing body may seem more complicated. Pop culture may lead a person to believe that international waters are lawless, but that is certainly not the case. We want to give those unfamiliar with our work a quick primer on how they decide jurisdiction, and a few maritime law basics to keep you informed.
Maritime Law or Admiralty Law
The terms admiralty law and maritime law are interchangeable and cover a combination of U.S. and international law that cover all contracts, injuries, offenses, or torts that occur on navigable waters. Admiralty law traditionally was for focusing on oceanic issues. It now covers any public body of water, including rivers and lakes. The laws cover interactions between ships, as well as a myriad of other legal issues.
How to Determine Jurisdiction in International Waters?
When reaching international waters (which is 24 miles from any coastline) the law of the ship is the law of the country whose flag it is flying. For instance, if a British-registered cruise ship, were smuggling goods 26 miles away from a New York coast they would be subject to British law.
A ship only 20 miles away would be considered within a contiguous zone in the United States. Certain, limited, rights would be granted to the U.S. Coast Guard in this case. The Coast Guard would be allowed to board the ship in this instance on suspicion of smuggling.
Who handles U.S. Maritime Cases?
In theory, any general jurisdiction court may hear cases involving maritime law. Courts with limited jurisdiction, like small claims court, may not hear maritime law cases. While there are specific examples of cases on the state level, as a rule, maritime law is federal jurisdiction.