Admiralty Jurisdiction of High Courts in India

Power to arrest a ship docked on ports of India:

Powers of High Courts:

In the absence of any statute in India comparable to the English statutes on admiralty jurisdiction, there is no reason why the words `damage caused by a ship’ appearing in section 443 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 should be so narrowly construed as to limit them to physical damage and exclude any other damage arising by reason of the operation of the vessel in connection with the carriage of goods. The expression is wide enough to include all maritime questions or claims. If goods or other property are lost or damaged, whether by physical contact or otherwise, by reason of unauthorised acts or negligent conduct on the part of the shipowner or his agents or servants, wherever the cause of action has arisen, or wherever the ship is registered, or wherever the owner has his residence or domicile or place of business, such a ship, at the request of the person aggrieved, is liable to be detained when found within Indian jurisdiction by recourse to sections 443 and 444 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 read with the appropriate rules of practice and procedure of the High Court. These procedural provisions are but tools for enforcement of substantive rights which are rooted in general principles of law, apart from statutes, and for the enforcement of which a party aggrieved has a right to invoke the inherent jurisdiction of a superior court.

The Merchant Shipping Act empowers the concerned High Court to arrest a ship in respect of a substantive right. A right conferred by the Indian Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, 1925 in respect of outward cargo is one of those rights which can be enforced by arrest and detention of the foreign ship in order to found jurisdiction over the vessel and its owners, just as it can be done in respect of inward cargo by reason of the substantive rights conferred by the Admiralty Court Act, 1861 read with the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act, 1890, and other rules of law. The same principle must hold good for carriage under a charterparty. These and other laws, such as the law of contract, tort, crime, mortgage, marine insurance, customs, port operations, etc. and the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes as well as the relevant rules of court regulating procedure and practice together constitute the body of substantive and procedural laws governing claims relating to inward and outward cargo, and such claims are enforceable against foreign ships by recourse to arrest and detention when found within jurisdiction.

The judicial power of this country, which is an aspect of national sovereignty, is vested in the people and is articulated in the provisions of the Constitution and the laws and is exercised by courts empowered to exercise it. It is absurd to confine that power to the provisions of imperial statutes of a bygone age. Access to court which is an important right vested in every citizen implies the existence of the power of the Court to render justice according to law. Where statute is silent and judicial intervention is required, Courts strive to redress grievances according to what is perceived to be principles of justice, equity and good conscience.

All foreign ships entering Indian waters are presumed to know that they fall within the jurisdiction of this country during their stay here. The vessel in question was lying in the Port of Vishakhapatnam when she was arrested in respect of a cause of action relating to cargo. The sole contention of the defendants as regards jurisdiction was that no High Court in India was invested with admiralty jurisdiction to order the arrest of the vessel in respect of a cause of action relating to outward cargo because section 6 of the Admiralty Court Act, 1861 (read with the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act, 1890) conferring admiralty jurisdiction on Indian High Courts confined it to `claims for damage to cargo imported’. This contention for the reasons we have stated, has no merits. The High Court, in our view, rightly assumed jurisdiction by the arrest of the vessel while it was lying in the port of Vishakhapatanam.

The High Court of Andhra Pradesh undoubtedly possesses jurisdiction over claims relating to inward and outward cargo. In the circumstances, the preliminary objection to the jurisdiction of the Andhra Pradesh High Court was totally devoid of merits.

Can it be successfully urged today that such a ship or its master and owner is immune from tort or breach of contract committed by him in respect of cargo taken out of port?

A citizen of a colonial state may or may not but a citizen of an independent republic cannot be left high and dry. The construction of law has to be in consonance with sovereignty of a state. The apprehension that assumption of such jurisdiction would be on general attributes of sovereignty is not well founded. This coupled with expansive jurisdiction that the High Courts enjoyed in relation to Admiralty under 1890 Act preserved under Article 225 provided justification for direction to arrest the ship, for the tortious act done by master or owner of the ship in respect of goods carried outside the port even if there was no specific provision like Section 6 of the 1861 Act. Entertaining a claim arising out of breach of contract in relation to cargo taken out of any Indian port pertains to jurisdiction. It must arise out of Statute. But the power to direct arrest of a ship in exercise of the jurisdiction is one relating to competency. The High Court in India being courts of unlimited jurisdiction, repository of all judicial power under the Constitution except what is excluded are competent to issue directions for arrest of foreign ship in exercise of statutory jurisdiction or even otherwise to effectuate the exercise of jurisdiction.

[Source: M.V. Elisabeth And Ors vs Harwan Investment And Trading, 1993 AIR 1014, 1992 SCR (1)1003]
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