Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Court of Admiralty Definition:

A rather archaic term used to denote the court which has the right to hear shipping, ocean and sea legal cases; jurisdiction over maritime law cases.

Related Terms: Admiralty, Maritime Law, Prize, Prize Court

A specialized court which receives and disposes of maritime law cases, involving shipping or in regards to events which occur on the high seas.

Most jurisdictions have now given admiralty jurisdiction to their federal or superior-level court.

In a rather circular description, this, from 2 C.J.S. §1 (1972):

"Admiralty is the system of jurisprudence relating to and growing out of the jurisdiction and practice of the admiralty courts, and the term is also used to denote a tribunal exercising jurisdiction over maritime matters."

In usage among lawyers versant in maritime law, in the event that a common law superior-level court is vested in the resolution of a maritime law dispute, it is said, then, to be exercising the jurisdiction of an admiralty court; to be an admiralty court or sitting as a court of admiralty, during the period of its hold and decision on that maritime law case.

One well-known jurisdiction commandeered by the Court of Admiralty was in regards to prize law.

Historically, in England, a court known, circa Richard II (1369), as, formally, the Court of the Lord High Admiral, but more commonly as the Admiralty Court:

"... began to hear disputes ... in all civil matters connected with the sea ... to things done upon the sea and in the main streams of great rivers to the seaward side of the bridges....

"Its exercise involved the Admiralty Court in a long struggle with the superior courts of common law. The Admiralty Court asserted the highest and fullest jurisdiction over everything that might happen on the high seas, but it was obliged to give way to the common law courts...."1

England, in 1840, passed an Admiralty Court Act to specify the jurisdiction of the Court, but eventually absorbed within the High Court of Justice.

In Foremost Ins. Co. v. Richardson, Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme Court adopted these words:

"Maritime courts, differing somewhat in name and somewhat in jurisdiction, have been established in all civilized nations at various periods in their history. The dates of their establishment may be said, because of the circumstances which brought them into being, to afford a very fair test of the advancement in civilization of their respective nations.

"In every case their establishment has been due to the same cause, the necessities of commerce.... The main thing is that if the court of admiralty is to exist at all, it should exist because the business of river, lake, and ocean shipping calls for supervision by a tribunal enjoying a particular expertness in regard to the more complicated concerns of that business. Maritime commerce — and nothing more — is the raison d'etre for the courts and rules of admiralty.... The historical justification for admiralty law and courts is commercial. Its law was designed to meet commercial needs and practice."


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