Scope of Prize Law

Prize law is provided for under admiralty law and is used to refer to cases where vessels, vehicles, cargo and other marine equipment are captured during armed conflict. The Naval Prize Act 1864 covers the basis and legal framework for prizes under admiralty law, that is, the capture of enemy ships and cargo, which is commonly referred to as a prize of war.

Prize law explained

Prize law is a historic law with its origins dating back to the 15th century. Commonly, prize law provided that where an enemy vessel or cargo was captured during war, the captures of the goods would be awarded a capture prize, that is, a share of the worth. Historically, letters of marquee were granted by nations during times of war. Letters of marquee were letters that granted private parties to capture enemy property. Once the captured goods were secured, the relevant courts – often known as Prize Courts – would decide how the goods should be disposed of.

Oftentimes the purpose for capturing enemy ships was to prevent the enemy from receiving aid as many of the ships would carry necessary equipment.

Prize law is a function of the law of war and has been developed and altered according to the jurisdictions enforcing it, however some basic rules still remain consistent;

  • All vessels of an enemy state are subject to seizure during war time by any opposing party
  • A neutral vessel navigating in a belligerent’s territorial sea may be stopped and searched where suspicion arises regarding the vessel’s cargo
  • Warships seized may be sunk immediately
  • Private merchant vessels can be taken to friendly territory for adjudication by a Prize Court
  • The right for coastal fishing vessels to maintain plying their trade without risk of seizure is enforced universally

Prize law ultimately provides the legal framework and balance of rights for neutral nations and their nationals to conduct international trade while giving the right of belligerent warships to interdict and capture vessels in the service of aiding the enemy.