Maritime law is the body of private law and international conventions governing navigation and shipping. Traditionally, a ship is subject to the laws of the country of its flag (or, to be precise, its ‘registry’). This means that maritime law differs significantly from country to country. At the same time, a number of international conventions exist which, although originally crafted by private groups of lawyers, now have a very broad international acceptance.
The great 19th century jurist, Jeremy Bentham, noted that ships often perform many roles at once and that they traverse many jurisdictional boundaries. He suggested that regarding a ship as an extension of a state’s territory would bring some order to this unique and challenging situation. Although this notion has largely fallen into disrepute, it is an important heuristic for understanding how rule of law at sea works.
Among the most significant concerns in maritime law are the rights of seamen and the protection of their property. Maritime law also deals with the regulation of marine pollution, the protection of the environment, and the safety of passengers and crew members. Another major issue is the compensation of individuals injured aboard ships. This area of the law is a very specific and complex field, with strict requirements in terms of proof and the statute of limitations within which an individual must file a suit. In the United States, this law is governed by the Jones Act and other federal legislation such as the Defense Base Act.