Badly behaving passengers on cruise ships: Whose law applies in international waters?

Recent examples of bad behaviour on cruise ships have led to some passengers being prematurely booted off, and raise the question, whose law applies on board a ship?

While the unruly passengers in both incidents were disembarked at Australian ports, maritime law is anything but straightforward. The location of a vessel at the time a crime is committed, its last and next ports of call, the nationality of victim and perpetrator and the country of registry of the vessel could all have a bearing on whose law ultimately applies.

The state in which a ship is registered, its flag state, has primary jurisdiction over events on board the ship. Some of the largest cruise operators, such as Royal Caribbean, are registered in the Bahamas, Carnival ships are registered in Panama while Celebrity and Azamara are registered in Malta.

It is for this reason that when a violent crime is committed in international waters – more than 12 nautical miles from any country's coastline – it's difficult in the extreme to bring charges against an accused.

Although violent shipboard crimes are relatively rare, those who commit such acts are seldom forced to face their accuser in a court of law.

Victims of shipboard crime might also sue the cruise operator for damages, which might include medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering, and the cruise operator will usually nominate in its booking conditions where such a case could be brought and which state's law would apply.

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