Overview of Maritime Laws in India

The current maritime laws in India have developed from colonial times, such as the Territorial Waters Jurisdiction Act, 1878, the Admiralty Offences (Colonial) Act, 1849, the Coasting Vessels Act, 1838, the Inland Steam vessels Act, 1917, the Indian Registration of Ships Act (1841) Amendment Act, 1850, the Indian Registration of Ships Act, 1841, the Indian Ports Act, 1908, the Indian Merchant Shipping Act, 1923; the Control of Shipping Act, 1947, the Merchant Seamen (Litigation) Act, 1946, the Merchant Shipping Laws (Extension to Acceding States and Amendment) Act, 1949 etc.

Adding on to the abovementioned, a sequence of legislative Acts of British Parliament, promulgated between 1823 and 1940, governed a variety of domains of Indian shipping, including ship-owners’ liability, certification of seafarers, salvage, safety and load line conventions. For determining the issues, the admiralty jurisdiction of Indian Courts had a beginning with Letters Patent, 1862 which vested the High Courts of Judicature at Bombay, Madras and Fort William in Bengal with control for adjudication and trial of maritime disputes arising in India, which was however, established by the Colonial Courts of Admiralty (India) Act, 1891.By the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act, 1890, the requirements of the Admiralty Court Act, 1840, and the Admiralty Court Act, 1861, were made relevant to Courts in British India, as they were Courts of law in British ownership.

Post-independence, the jurisdiction of Admiralty Courts in India were as well limited to the claims as enumerated in the aforementioned British legislations, however, in 1993, the SCI in M. V. Elisabeth firmly opined that High Courts in India are greater Courts of records with limitless jurisdiction with inbuilt and plenary powers to make a decision on their own jurisdiction to restore grievances according to what is professed to be principles of justice, equity and good conscience where law is unspoken and judicial intervention is necessary. Therefore, the SCI prepared the principles of International Convention on Maritime Laws appropriate in India’s common law in the place of the previous age British legislations since there was no Indian law prevailing the Courts’ jurisdiction with reference to the maritime claims. In 2005, the Government of India spread a drafted Bill for an Admiralty Act, 2005, which proposed to revoke all of the aforementioned outdated British legislations to bring into being an inclusive law to control the jurisdiction, claims, procedure, etc in admiralty law in India.Though, it was shot down making the persistence of function of the old age British legislations for the reasons best recognized to the makers of law.

Jurisdiction of Indian Courts
Before India gained Independence, under The Colonial Court of Admiralty Act, 1890, the High Court of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were the only judicial authorities competent to deal with matters relating to Admiralty. The other courts of justice were restricted from dealing with issues concerning the Admiralty. Under the Admiralty Courts Act, 1861, the three presidency courts were vested with the same powers as that of the High Court of England. Section 35 of the Admiralty Courts Act, 1861 deals with the jurisdiction of Admiralty court, and it reads as the following:

” The jurisdiction conferred by this Act on the High Court of Admiralty may be either by proceedings in rem or by proceedings in personam.”The Law relating to Admiralty jurisdiction is relevant even today under Article 372 of the Constitution of India.
Therefore, in M.V. Elisabeth vs Harwan Investment and Trading, 1993 AIR SC 1014, the question was whether a court having no admiralty jurisdiction could entertain a case relating to Admiralty. The Supreme Court, in this case, widened the scope of admiralty jurisdiction in India.

The Court held:
“Although statutes now control the field, much of the admiralty law is rooted in judicial decisions and influenced by the impact of Civil Law, Common Law, and equity. The ancient maritime codes like the Rhodian Sea Law, the Basilika, the Assizes of Jerusalem, the Rolls of Oleron, the Laws of Visby, the Hanseatic Code, the Black Book of the British Admiralty, Consolato del Mare, and others are, apart from statute, some of the sources from which the Law developed in England. Any attempt to confine Admiralty or maritime Law within the bounds of statutes is not only unrealistic but incorrect.”

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