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Admiralty law (usually referred to as simply admiralty and also referred to as maritime law or Law of the Sea) is a distinct body of law which governs maritime questions and offenses. Under conventions of international law, the flag flown by a ship generally determines the source of law to be applied in admiralty cases, regardless of which court has personal jurisdiction over the parties. This has led some ships to fly flags of convenience.
Sea-borne transport being one of the most ancient channels of commerce, rules for resolution of disputes involving maritime trade developed very early in recorded history. Classical sources of this law include the Rhodian law, of which no primary written specimen has survived, but which is alluded to in other legal texts: Roman and Byzantine legal codes, and the customs of the Hanseatic League.
Admiralty law was introduced into England by Eleanor of Aquitaine while she was acting as regent for her son King Richard the Lionheart. She had earlier established admiralty law on the island of Oleron (where it was published as the Rolls of Oleron) in her own lands (but she is often referred to in admiralty law books as "Eleanor of Guyenne"), having learned about it in the eastern Mediterranean while on Crusade with her first husband, King Louis VII of France. In England special courts, admiralty courts handle all admiralty cases. These courts do not use the common law of England, but are civil law courts based upon the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian.
In the United States, admiralty is under the jurisdiction of the United States district courts and appeal from judgments in admiralty case lies to the United States courts of appeals. However, admiralty courts in the United States are courts of limited jurisdiction, so state courts have concurrent jurisdiction in admiralty when state law claims are at issue. Moreover, state courts may have jurisdiction in admiralty when the matters being adjudicated are local. Under Article III of the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court is the court of last resort for all cases arising under admirality law, although only a few cases on each term's docket will actually deal with admiralty claims.
Most of the common law countries i.e. Pakistan, Singapore, India etc. follow the English statutes and case laws. India still follows the old Victorian law i.e. Admiralty Court Act, 1861 [24 Vict c 10]. Though Pakistan has its own statutes i.e. Admiralty Jurisdiction of High Courts Ordinance, 1980 (Ordinance XLII of 1980), it still follows English case laws. One reason is that the Pakistani law is somewhat replica of old English admiralty law as enunciated in Administration of Justice Act, 1956. The current statute dealing with the Admiralty jurisdiction of the England and Wales High Court is Supreme Court Act, 1981 (sec.20-24,37). This statue is based on International 'Arrest Convention 1952'.
Admiralty Courts assume jurisdiction by virtue of the presence of the vessel in its territorial jurisdiction irrespective of whether the vessel is national or not and whether registered or not and wherever the residence or domicile or their owners may be. A vessel is usually arrested by the court to retain jurisidiction. State owned vessels are usually immune from arrest.