Maritime Law is the body of legal principles, which govern in particular, marine, commerce and navigation, business transacted at sea or relating to navigation, ships and shipping, seamen, transportation of person and property at sea and to marine affairs generally. Shipping is the process of engaging in commerce through various types of navigable waters. Shipping is at all times central to the activities in the maritime industry. It covers Admiralty law, its governing laws, jurisdiction, regulatory institutions, proceedings, arrest and detention of vessels and marine cargo claims.
Prior to the promulgation of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Decree 1991, Nigeria relied on the colonial Admiralty Act of 1890 and the Nigerian Courts also applied the Administration of Justice Act 1956 to exercise their in rem jurisdiction.The Act empowered colonial courts to exercise the full extent of the Admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court in England. In Nigeria, the powers were exercised by the Supreme Court. By the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act 1962, the Admiralty Jurisdiction was conferred on the High Court.
By virtue of Section 251(1) (g) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended, the Federal High Court has exclusive jurisdiction in matters pertaining to carriage of goods by sea and Admiralty law generally in Nigeria. This means all court matters on maritime in Nigeria can only be heard at first instance at the Federal High Court. However, they have jurisdiction in rem (that is over the ship itself regardless of which flag state it flies) in an admiralty action only when the ship is within the territorial jurisdiction of the court (of Nigeria) at the time the case is initiated.
In Nigeria today, maritime law is governed essentially by the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act (MSA) 2007, the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act (AJA) 1991 and the Admiralty Jurisdiction Procedures Rules 2011. It is pertinent to note that there are other applicable numbers of Federal Laws. Some of the main Maritime Regulatory Institutions in Nigeria are: Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Nigeria (NIMASA), Nigeria Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), Nigeria Shippers Council(NSC), Nigerian Ports Authority(NPA), Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority(NIWA).
They are of two types: In Personam and in Rem. Actions in personam are those in which an individual is charged personally in respect to some matter of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. An action in rem is an action against the ship itself. In order to initiate an action in rem, a maritime lien (a right to a claim over a ship because of an breach committed using the ship for example an accident caused by a ship or damages to the cargo on a ship) should exist. An action in rem can be instituted even if there is no lien over such property if the action is for recovery of possession of property.
Arrest of ship may arise for obtaining a pre-Judgment security or in the execution or satisfaction of a Court Judgement, a government agency such as the Nigerian Ports Authority can arrest or detain a ship. Once a vessel is arrested, it should be in the custody of the Admiralty marshal. Hearing of the application in court over the arrest of such vessel must be heard expeditiously because time is of essence as the consequences of the arrest may lead to untold hardship and damages to the ship owners, the charterers and even other cargo owners.
Marine cargo claims include; loss of damage to goods, delay in delivery, damages or detention, etc,.Under the Old Merchant Shipping Act, the doctrine of privity of contract strictly applies, i.e, a person who is not a party to a contract cannot sue or be sued upon its terms. The new Merchant Shipping Act 2007, dispensed with privity doctrine and enables the third party to sue the carrier upon the terms represented in the bill of lading. For example, a Nigerian trader orders a thousand bags of cement from Spain and they are brought to Nigeria on a German ship. When the cement is discharged, it is discovered that two hundred bags are either missing or damaged. In such a situation, a claim against the owners of the vessel can be filed against the agents of the ship owners.
Nigeria is blessed with coastal and inland waterways or navigable rivers, thus, more attention has to be given to the industry. Measures such as proper legislation reforms, adequate funding, manpower development and prioritizing safety have to be considered in order to make the industry more operational and competitive.