Admiralty Laws in India and Admiralty Bill, 2016

On March 11, 2017, the Lok Sabha passed Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill, 2016. The objectives of this proposed law including consolidating the existing laws; repealing archaic provisions; and bringing admiralty jurisdiction under the high courts of coastal states. This topic should be understood in the light of below questions:

  • What is admiralty law? Why there is a need of separate admiralty law?
  • What is the historical perspective of admiralty law in India?
  • What is the status of admiralty law in India?
  • What are the key highlights of the Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill, 2016?
  • Make a critical examination of the proposed amendments.

What is admiralty law? Why there is a need of separate admiralty law?

Admiralty law is another name for domestic maritime law and it covers the maritime questions and offenses. Oceans have always been under anarchic conditions. Unlike land and air, Ocean is too vast to be policed and even today, it is a big challenge. India has a coastline of more than 7500 kms and has huge interest in Indian Ocean. Also, the maritime sector in the country in last few decades has seen awesome growth with both the private and public ports growing up. Currently, majority of India’s international trade is done through maritime route and the role of ports and shipping industry in sustaining growth is immense. Thus, being one of the most vital sectors of the economy, the shipping industry and activities need a unified sphere of law to simplify the procedures and proper dispensation of justice.

What is the historical perspective of admiralty law in India?

The admiralty laws in India belong to colonial era. In 19th century, the British Maritime trade had grown by leaps and bounds and some acts passed by British Parliament increased the jurisdiction of High Court of Admiralty in England. However, to bring the uniformity between the jurisdictions of High Court of Admiralty in England and various British colonies, the British Parliament enacted Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act of 1890. Under this act, certain courts of India could be declared as Colonial Courts of Admiralty and the Courts thus declared would have the Admiralty jurisdiction similar to High

Court of Admiralty in England. With this, the High Court of Bombay emerged as a court with jurisdiction in admiralty matters in India. Various other high courts of India were subsequently given such kind of jurisdiction. When India became independent, such laws continued under Article 372 ( Continuance in force of existing laws and their adaptation).

What is the status of admiralty law in India?

Currently, there are five different pre as well as post-colonial laws on admiralty in India which are 126 to 177 years old. The current government is tryong to remove obsolete laws and provisions and bring the laws in conformity to the current times with the currently proposed amendments.

What are the key highlights of the Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill, 2016?

The key highlights of the bill are as follows:

Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction beyond Bombay, Calcutta and Madras

The proposed bill extends the admiralty jurisdiction from high courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to other high courts including Karnataka, Gujarat, Odisha, Kerala, Hyderabad and any further high courts as notified by the Central Government.

Powers of High Courts to settle Maritime Claims

The high courts will be able to exercise the jurisdiction in maritime claims – such as ownerships of vessels; mortgage on vessels; construction or repair of vessels etc.

Prioritisation of matters

The proposed law prioritizes the various matters. Under this, the highest priority will be given to maritime claims; followed by mortgages and other claims. Under maritime claims also, the highest priority has been given to claims related to wages, followed by loss of life or injury related claims.

Streamlining Jurisdiction

The proposed law tries to streamline the jurisdiction of the courts over persons and clarifies what actions can be take again them and under what circumstances. The courts cal also order for arrest of vessels when owner of vessel is liable for claim or due to mortgage related reasons.

Appeals

Regarding appeals, it has been specified that  appeals against a judgement passed by single judge in high court can be appealed to a divisional bench and also further to Supreme Court.

Appointment of Assessors

The central government will appoint a list of assessors qualified and experienced in admiralty and maritime matters.

Make a critical examination of the proposed amendments.

We note here that since the high court ruling in the M.V. Elizabeth case (1992), all High Courts have already the legitimate Admiralty Jurisdiction under the Constitution of India. But there is a need of uniform sphere of laws to facilitate the settlement of disputes between shipowners and the users of ships; settlement of various maritime claims and other such issues. India is responsible for dispensing justice on the offenses committed in water on which it  exercises control – not only for the sake of humanity but also to maintain sovereignty over large swathe of water , as an old Sanskrit saying goes “Jalamev Yasya, Balamev Tasya”. Thus, there is a need of a dedicated law to administer matters related to maritime activities such as maritime trade, navigation, shipping, salvaging, issues related to sailors and passengers and goods. Towards this, the proposed amendments were long overdue and are needed.

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