Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Prize Law Definition:

Rules of international law under which in war conditions, property and vessels, including transport ships, and their cargoes, may be seized.

Related Terms: War, Salvage, Prize, Prize Court

The capture of property, especially a ship or vessel, in the military service of the enemy loses title immediately in the government of the captor; it converts into what maritime law refers to as prize.

In many jurisdictions, including England, special prize courts were set up to allow disputes related to the seizure of enemy vessels to be resolved, a branch of the Court of Admiralty.

"The belligerent right of the Crown is to seize the property of neutrals at sea in time of war under circumstances and under certain conditions. One such condition is that the property be brought before a Court of Prize for adjudication."1

One summary of prize law was presented by Justice Wright of the House of Lords in Re Part cargo Ex SS Monte Contes:

"Captors are entitled to seize property, ship or goods if there is reasonable ground for suspicion that the property is subject to be condemned.

"The property must be brought by captors for adjudication into the Prize Court by means of the issue and service of a writ. Persons claiming to be interested in the property may then enter appearance and file a claim.

"To succeed in their claim they must prove their title to the property, and establish that the facts are such that there is no cause to justify condemnation. Thus the captors must show that the case is one involving reasonable suspicion. If they do so, and if no claim is made, or if the claim fails, the Court will in due course condemn the property as prize. But on the side of the claimants positive proof to the satisfaction of the Court is exacted. They have to prove that they are entitled to the release of the goods as being their property, and also that the facts are such that there is nothing which would render the property good and lawful prize. In other words, they must show by affirmative evidence that the reasonable suspicions were unfounded."

Another explanation was provided by Justice Mersey of the Judicial Committee of the English Privy Council in Odessa:

"All civilized nations up to the present time have recognized the right of a belligerent to seize, with a view to condemnation by a competent Court of Prize, enemy ships found on the high seas or in the belligerents' territorial waters, and enemy cargoes. But such seizure does not, according to British prize law, affect the ownership of the thing seized. Before that can happen the thing seized, be it ship or goods, must be brought into the possession of a lawfully constituted Court of Prize, and the captor must then ask for and obtain its condemnation as prize. The suit may be initiated by the representative of the capturing State, in this country by the Procurator-General. It is a suit in rem, and the function of the Court is to inquire into the national character of the thing seized. If it is found to be of enemy character, the duty of the Court is to condemn it; if not, then to restore it to those entitled to its possession."


  • France Fenwick Tyne and Wear Company v. Procurator General, [1942] A. C. 667.
  • Judicial Decisions Involving Questions of International Law, 38 Am. J. Int'l L. 306 (1944)
  • In re Part Cargo Ex S.S. Monte Contes Conservas Cerqueira Limitada v H. M. Procurator General, 60 TLR 57 (1943).
  • NOTE 1: Justice Sumner in the Oscar II, 9 Lloyd 287
  • Re the Odessa, 3 Lloyd 405; I Br. & Col. Pr. Cas. 559
  • Re the Zamora, 4 Lloyd 62

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