Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Prize Court Definition:

Courts instituted for the purpose of trying judicially the lawfulness of captures at sea.

Related Terms: Prize, Court of Admiralty, Prize Law

In Lindo v. Rodney, Lord Mansfield wrote:

"The end of a prize court is, to suspend the property till condemnation; to punish every sort of misbehavior in the captors; to restore instantly ... if, upon the most summary examination, there don't appear a sufficient ground; to condemn finally, if the goods really are prize, against everybody, giving everybody a fair opportunity of being heard. A captor may, and must, force every person interested to defend, and every person interested may force him to proceed to condemn, without delay."

In Cushing v Laird, Justice Gray of the Supreme Court of United States wrote:

"Prize courts are not instituted to determine civil and private rights, but for the purpose of trying judicially the lawfulness of captures at sea, according to the principles of public international law, with the double object of preventing and redressing wrongful captures, and of justifying the rightful acts of the captors in the eyes of other nations.

"The ordinary course of proceeding in prize causes is ill adapted to the ascertainment of controverted titles between individuals. It is wholly different from those which prevail in municipal courts of common law or equity, in the determination of questions of property between man and man. From the necessity of the case, and in order to interrupt as little as may be the exercise of the belligerent duties of the captors, or the voyage and trade of the captured vessel if neutral, the proceedings are summary. The libel is filed as soon as possible after the prize has been brought into a port of the government of the captors, and does not contain any allegation as to title, nor even set forth the grounds of condemnation, but simply prays that the vessel may be forfeited to the captors as lawful prize of war. The monition issued and published upon the filing of the libel summons all persons interested to show cause against the condemnation of the property as prize of war, and is returnable within a very few days, too short a time to allow of actual notice to or appearance or proof in behalf of owners residing abroad.

"The law of nations presumes and requires that in time of war every neutral vessel shall have on board papers showing her character, and shall also have officers and crew able to testify to facts establishing her neutrality. The captors are therefore required immediately to produce to the Prize Court the ship's papers, and her master, or some of her principal officers or crew, to be examined on oath upon standing interrogatories, and without communication with or instruction by counsel. The cause is heard in the first instance upon these proofs, and if they show clear ground for condemnation or for acquittal, no further proof is ordinarily required or permitted. If the evidence ... shows no ground for condemnation, and no circumstances of suspicion, the captors will not ordinarily be allowed to introduce further proof, but there must be an acquittal and restitution. When further proof is ordered, it is only from such witnesses and upon such points as the Prize Court may in its discretion think fit."


  • Cushing v. Laird, 107 US 69 (1883)
  • Lindo v. Rodney, reported at Footnote [1] to Le Caux v Eden, 2 Doug. 613 or 99 E.R. 375 at page 386.

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