Admiralty Law in India

Black’s Law dictionary defines maritime Law as- “the body of law governing marine commerce and navigation, the carriage at of persons and property, and marine affairs in general; the rules governing contract, tort and workers’ compensation claims or relating to commerce on or over water.”

In simple words, Maritime Law is a set of rules and regulations which govern the matters relating to sea and ships. It is also known as admiralty law. In India, the maritime laws are governed by The Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Act, 2017 which came into force in India on the 1st April 2018. It repeals the archaic laws which had been applicable in India, namely the Admiralty Courts Act, 1840; Admiralty Courts Act, 1861; the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act 1890; Colonial Court of Admiralty (India) Act, 1891 and provisions of the Letters Patent, 1865 pertaining to the Admiralty Jurisdiction of the Bombay, Calcutta and Madras High Courts.

In the landmark case of M. V. Elizabeth & others v. Harwan Investment Trading Pvt. Ltd. (1992) the Apex Court decided on jurisdictional uncertainty and ruled that for deciding matters within India, the High Courts of India hold a superior position than any other Courts or laws. The Court was also of the opinion that the High Courts of India have unlimited jurisdiction with inherent and plenary powers to decide upon their own jurisdiction.

However, under the new Act, 8 High Courts in coastal states can now invoke admiralty jurisdiction up to the territorial waters of their respective jurisdictions in respect of maritime claims. 

The Admiralty Act aligns Indian laws with the International Conventions for Arrest of Ships, 1952 and 1999 as well as the International Convention on Maritime Liens, 1993; and provides for the adjudication of identified maritime claims, provision of security for such claims, arrest of vessels, and so on.

The term “Vessel” is defined in Section 2 (1) (l), to include any ship, boat, sailing vessel or other description of vessel used or constructed for use in navigation by water, whether it is propelled or not, and includes a barge, lighter or other floating vessel, a hovercraft, an off-shore industry mobile unit, a vessel that has sunk or is stranded or abandoned and the remains of such a vessel.

This puts to rest the issue which was the subject of numerous applications pending before the Courts challenging arrests of dumb barges, offshore units etc. on the grounds that they are not “Vessels”. This also puts to rest the issue where by the Bombay HC, the vessels arriving India for the purposes of breaking ceased to be a vessel capable of being proceeded against and arrested in an Admiralty Suit for enforcement of a maritime claim.

When it comes to arrest of a vessel, the high court with the admiralty jurisdiction may order for the arrest of any vessel within their jurisdiction for providing security against a maritime claim which is the subject matter of a court case. They may do so under rationale such as: 

  1. owner of the vessel is liable for the claim, 
  2. the claim is based on mortgage of the vessel, and 
  3. the claim relates to ownership of the vessel, etc.

The Act has provided safeguard against wrongful arrest in Section 11 by bringing in a provision for counter security from the claimant if the arrest is found to be wrongful. It is also made applicable to all vessels irrespective of their flag and thus any vessel whether foreign or Indian to the exclusion of state-owned ones could be arrested.

The Admiralty Act now also defines ‘maritime lien’ under section 2(1)(g) and recognizes certain claims as Maritime Liens; and sets out their priorities in Section 9:

  1. wages for employment (including repatriation and social insurance contributions) claim for which extinguishes after two years; 
  2. loss of life or personal injury claims; 
  3. reward for salvage services; and
  4. port, canal, and other waterways dues, pilotage and statutory dues. 

Likewise, the Admiralty Act also provides for priority of Maritime Claims in Admiralty proceedings in Section 10. Maritime Liens have the highest priority, followed by registered mortgages and charges, and thereafter all other claims. If there are more than one claim in any single category of priority, they shall rank equally and salvage claims rank in inverse order of time to when the claims accrued.

Conclusion: In spite of the recent amendments and repeal of the previous laws, Maritime laws in India still exclude many areas which are covered under the modern international laws. Although the Admiralty Act is the first step towards codification of the Admiralty jurisdiction and related practices and rules followed under Indian law, the Admiralty Act has led to certain anomalies which are yet to be addressed by the Legislature or the Judiciary. It is however a step towards the right direction and a way forward.


Aishwarya Says:

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