What is maritime law, and how did it evolve?

Understanding the Origins and Evolution of Maritime Law

The maritime industry facilitates global shipping across borders, and many stakeholders invest in transporting goods via sea. Worldwide shipping enables importers and exporters to exchange goods internationally through intermodal transportation. Since many nations are involved, it is crucial to establish laws and uniformity across the globe regarding maritime shipping. Maritime law in shipping helps establish rules and guidelines concerning seawater trading, such as insurance, emergencies, distributing navigational routes, threats, and environmental sustainability. It is essential to address these issues and form laws that can tackle the challenges in maritime shipping. Let us learn more about the evolution of maritime law and its implications on shipping.  

What do you mean by maritime industry? 

The maritime industry is a part of the logistics and transportation industry, essentially shipping goods via sea routes. It is a waterborne commerce which allows hassle free worldwide shipping of goods across the globe. The shippers export or import the shipments internationally in cost-effective way. Shipping ports are the major maritime infrastructures built on coastlines to enable ships to load and unload cargo and passengers. Ports can accommodate different types of ships, including cruise ships, containerships, and reefer ships.  

Various types of cargo are packed into shipping containers inside maritime facilities such as inland container depots, container terminals, on-dock container yards, and off-dock container yards. The maritime industry combines all these resources and infrastructures that help in the seamless flow of supply chain trade. Port management systems are maritime governance bodies that overlook the efficient functioning and networking between significant and small shipping ports. 

What is the purpose of the International Maritime Organisation? 

The International Maritime Organization is a specialised agency of the United Nations established in 1948 and regulates shipping. The role of an international maritime organisation is as follows- 

  1. Safe shipping– Ports in maritime shipping follow the comprehensive set of regulations and guidelines framed by the IMO to ensure the safety of shipping. A few of IMO’s duties include drafting standards for ship design, construction, and the equipment needed and improving the shipping operation to make it safe for crew, workers and cargo. 
  2. Reducing environmental damage– One of the primary aims of the IMO is to reduce carbon emissions caused by maritime shipping. The organisation works to prevent and control pollution from ships and safeguard marine flora and fauna. IMO regulations address issues of waste disposal, management, emergencies such as oil spills, and carbon footprints. 
  3. Improves global relations– Maritime shipping is a choice of most shippers willing to ship goods across international borders. The IMO ensures that all nations consistently and uniformly follow shipping standards without any discrepancies. It fosters global trade and improves trade relations between countries. 
  4. Training workforce– The IMO is responsible for organising training programmes for workers to integrate and operate technology into maritime shipping. It includes sharing helpful information, expertise, and best practices to equip the workers with new technologies that can help introduce automation in shipping ports. 
  5. Research and development– IMO is constantly working in maritime safety, security, and environmental protection to improve the consumer experience and streamline maritime supply chain management. 

What is maritime law? 

Maritime law, referred to as ‘admiralty law’, is a fundamental and specialised branch of law that supervises and governs all activities on the sea. Maritime laws concern various legal matters associated with navigation, shipping, distribution of maritime resources, and other maritime activities such as container inspection. These maritime laws apply to private ports and businesses. The primary goal of maritime laws is to regulate maritime activities and resolve any disputes arising during maritime commerce and navigation. Domestic laws are also applicable to shipping ports of a nation but are restricted to the country itself. Therefore, to sum up, maritime law is complex as it often involves a combination of national and international regulations formulated to standardise international shipping. These laws are crucial as they facilitate seamless global trade, ensure the safety of life and cargo during maritime activities, and address legal issues concerning the maritime environment. To clarify, the maritime laws only apply to seawater shipping and do not apply to inland waterways in many cases. For example- EEXI and CII regulations are maritime laws formulated to minimise the rate of carbon emissions in shipping.

How has maritime law evolved? 

A few of the earliest maritime laws include the Rhodian sea laws and Roman laws, which were later updated through European laws. These laws and codes aimed to establish shipping contracts, and maritime insurance and tackle emergencies such as shipwrecks and salvages. One thing noted through the evolution of maritime law in the past years was the uniformity in maritime laws across the globe. The uniformity was carried forward through the years to minimise the conflict in the laws of various nations. The same concept has been developed under the International Maritime Organization and other United Nations organisations dedicated to improving the face of sea-based shipping. If tracing the evolution of maritime law, it is as follows-

  1. The Rhodian sea law in 800 BCE addressed maritime issues, maritime insurance and fatalities at sea. 
  2. The law of Wisby, coined in the 13th century, aimed to improve trade and commerce in the city and ensure that merchants were treated fairly. 
  3. Hague’s rule set out to prevent ship owners and carriers from being liable for loss or damage to goods during a voyage. It was meant to establish uniformity for maritime shipping. 
  4. With the expansion of maritime trade, International Maritime Conventions were held in the 19th and 20th centuries to address the growing need for international cooperation in maritime activities. The conventions discussed laws regarding collisions at sea. 
  5. Later, the United Nations established the International Maritime Organisation to supervise the modernisation and harmonisation of maritime laws. 
  6. Following the establishment of IMO, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty was adopted in 1982 to define the boundaries for nations to use maritime resources, navigation routes, and environmental protection of the world’s oceans.  
  7. With the integration of technology in maritime shipping, the evolution of maritime laws has moved towards addressing issues of piracy, cyber threats, maritime security, and environmental sustainability. 

This is how maritime law evolved with time and the requirements in maritime shipping. Through the years, these laws have helped establish uniformity and discipline in the maritime industry across the globe. 

LOTUS Containers is a marketer of shipping container services across the globe. We have partnered with over 300+ container depots to offer container leasing and selling services worldwide. 

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