Maritime law is the body of laws, statutes, regulations and case law that govern shipping and trade, commerce, cargo, employment and other aspects of marine transport. It is distinct from general common law, which deals with other areas of legal practice on land.
The roots of maritime law date back to ancient Egypt when the need arose for a reliable authority that could render fair judgments in cases where sailors were injured or killed aboard ships on their voyages between ports. Later, when trade routes extended beyond the Mediterranean, so too did maritime law. The earliest code to emerge was the Rolls of Oleron, which formed the basis for the maritime law of England and France, as well as Scotland, Flanders, Prussia and Castile.
While many maritime laws are international in scope, the enforcement of these provisions is typically left to member states rather than a central authority. This is a practical measure, as creating such an entity would be expensive and logistically challenging. For example, the right of recognition (the ability of warships to request any ship to identify itself) and the right of hot pursuit are generally left to flag states, while policing the high seas is usually up to port nations, who can arrest foreign vessels operating in their territorial waters, harbors or inland waterways.
Another aspect of maritime law that warrants its own section is maintenance and cure, which is designed to provide workers injured on the job with financial compensation until they are medically able to return to work. This is an important area of law, often misunderstood, as it is assumed that only those who work on cruise ships, oil rigs and similar places are covered by this legislation, when in reality anyone from crane operators to clerical office staff receive the full protections of the law.