New Delhi, March 12: In order to establish a legal framework to consolidate the existing laws relating to admiralty jurisdiction of courts, admiralty proceedings on maritime claims, the arrest of vessels and related issues, the Lok Sabha on Friday passed the Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill, 2016.
The Bill confers admiralty jurisdiction on High Courts located in coastal states of India and this jurisdiction extends up to territorial waters. Introduced during the winter session of Parliament, the Bill came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha and hence passed with a majority. The Minister of State ( RT&H, S, C&F), Mansukh Mandaviya, presented an overview of the Bill in the House, highlighting the need for repealing five obsolete British statutes on admiralty jurisdiction in civil matters, which are 126 to 177 years old.
The Bill also provides for prioritization of maritime claims and maritime liens while providing protection to owners, charterers, operators, crew members and seafarers at the same time. During the course of the discussion, thirteen members presented their views and raised various questions which were replied to by Mandaviya. The Bill was then passed by the House.
Highlights of the Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill, 2016:
Admiralty jurisdiction: The jurisdiction with respect to maritime claims under the Bill will vest with the respective High Courts and will extend up to the territorial waters of their respective jurisdictions. The central government may extend the jurisdiction of these High Courts. Currently, admiralty jurisdiction applies to the Bombay, Calcutta and Madras High Courts. The Bill further extend this to the High Courts of Karnataka, Gujarat, Orissa, Kerala, Hyderabad, and any other High Court notified by the central government.
Maritime claims: The High Courts may exercise jurisdiction on maritime claims arising out of conditions including: (i) disputes regarding ownership of a vessel, (ii) disputes between co-owners of a vessel regarding employment or earnings of the vessel, (iii) mortgage on a vessel, (iv) construction, repair, or conversion of the vessel, (v) disputes arising out of the sale of a vessel, (vi) environmental damage caused by the vessel, etc. The Bill defines a vessel as any ship, boat, or sailing vessel which may or may not be mechanically propelled.
While determining maritime claims under the specified conditions, the courts may settle any outstanding accounts between parties with regard to the vessel. They may also direct that the vessel or a share of it be sold. With regard to a sale, courts may determine the title to the proceeds of such sale.
Priority of maritime claims: Among all claims in an admiralty proceeding, highest priority will be given to maritime claims, followed by mortgages on the vessel, and all other claims. Within maritime claims, the highest priority will be given to claims for wages due with regard to employment on the vessel. This would be followed by claims with regard to loss of life or personal injury in connection with the operation of the vessel. Such claims will continue to exist even with the change of ownership of the vessel.
Jurisdiction over a person: Courts may exercise admiralty jurisdiction against a person with regard to maritime claims. However, the courts will not entertain complaints against a person in certain cases. These include (i) damage, or loss of life, or personal injury arising out of a collision between vessels that was caused in India, or (ii) non-compliance with the collision regulations of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 by a person who does not reside or carry out business in India. Further, Courts will not entertain an action against a person until any case against them with regard to the same incident in any court outside India has ended.
The arrest of vessel: The courts may order the arrest of any vessel within their jurisdiction for providing security against a maritime claim which is the subject of a proceeding. They may do so for various reasons such as (i) owner of the vessel is liable for the claim, (ii) the claim is based on a mortgage of the vessel, and (iii) the claim relates to ownership of the vessel, etc.
Appeals: Any judgments made by a single Judge of the High Court can be appealed against to a Division Bench of the High Court. Further, the Supreme Court may, on application by any party, transfer an admiralty proceeding at any stage from one High Court to any other High Court. The latter High Court will proceed with the matter from the stage where it stood at the time of the transfer.
Assessors: The central government will appoint a list of assessors qualified and experienced in admiralty and maritime matters. The central government will also determine the duties of assessors and their fee. Typically, assessors assist the judges in determining rates and claims in admiralty proceedings.