Legal Beagle: Cruise ship dramas

Those following the Legal Beagle columns I post here ( I write these for the fabulous Romance Writers of Australia magazine, HeartsTalk), will know they aren’t written as legal advice, but tips that might be useful to writers dealing with similar issues. Because legal issues come up all the time! Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote on cruise ships. What happens if there is a death or crime on board?


If you are planning to set a novel on a cruise ship, if your characters go overseas for work or pleasure, or if one of your characters dies while on a ship or on an overseas holiday, I hope you’ll find something to interest you in this month’s column.            

Many cruise ship companies operate in Australian waters, and carry thousands of Australian passengers each year, but they are overwhelmingly owned and operated by overseas interests, primarily based in the US and the UK. The ships, however, are highly unlikely to be registered in these countries. They will be registered in ‘flag States,’ or ‘flags of convenience,’ countries like Panama, Bermuda or Barbados, with little or no control over the cruise ship day-to-day operations. Why? Often because it’s cheaper to register in flag states, and the regulatory requirements are less onerous.

If a crime is committed on a cruise ship (given the number of people on board, this is not an irregular occurrence) it can be difficult to work out who is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of crimes. And to add to the complexity, there are many possible laws that will apply to any crime. There is international law, in the form of The United Nations Convention on The Law of the Sea 1982, the law of the flag state, the law of the countries of the citizens involved, and often the law of the port the ship is either leaving, or sailing towards. Here is an example of what can occur:

Annabel, an Australian citizen, books a ten day cruise on The Princess Charming, a ship owned by a US company, and registered in Bermuda. Annabel boards at Circular Quay in Sydney. The ship is only a few nautical miles from New Caledonia when Sigrid, a citizen of Sweden, assaults Annabel (Sigrid claims she committed the act because Annabel spiked her drink the night before). Annabel sustains a broken arm. What law applies?

The law of Bermuda will apply because that is where the ship is registered. The law of New Caledonia will apply because, within the 12 nautical mile zone, the ship is in New Caledonian waters. Australian law would apply because Annabel is an Australian citizen. Swedish law could also be relevant, as the perpetrator of the offence is a Swedish citizen. The ship is owned and run by a UK company, so the laws of that country would also be relevant.

So… there will be a multitude of jurisdictions operating concurrently. A ship will always be subject to the domestic laws of the country in which it is flagged (there are no Australian flagged cruise ships), but while in territorial waters it may also be subject to the laws regulating those waters, and ports. If it is in international waters, those laws will come into play. And in the case of a crime being committed, the perpetrator and victim’s countries of citizenship will have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute. So there will be ‘competing jurisdictional claims.’ The countries themselves will have to work out who takes action, and which jurisdiction and laws will apply (often the flag state doesn’t want to get involved—it doesn’t have the resources, interest or will to do so).

On a side note, most people are familiar with the notion that if you commit a crime in another country, you will be liable under the laws of that country. The same concepts apply on a cruise ship, and ignorance of the law will never be an excuse. This means that, for example, some medications or recreational drugs allowable in one country might be prohibited substances in another country, and this will be relevant when the ship sails into that country’s territorial waters.

Felix, an Australian citizen, has planned a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ a cruise to Antarctica, for years. He boards a cruise ship (owned by a British company and registered in Malta) in Argentina. He has been on the ship for three days, and is in international waters, when he dies of a heart attack.

Death at sea from natural causes, particularly given the demographic of many cruise passengers, happens relatively frequently. All cruise ships are required to have a suitable storage area should a death occur on board.

What happens to a deceased person’s body will depend on the laws that apply on the ship, and in the next port of call.  That destination port might allow the body to be handed over. Or it might refuse to take the body (smaller countries without appropriate storage or repatriation facilities often reject a body). Should the body be unloaded (and, anecdotally, it appears that this will be the preference of the cruise ship company) the family will bear the full cost and responsibility to bring the body back to the home country. This is where travel insurance will be important!

The message from this month’s column is… should a crime be committed on a ship, or a death occurs on board, there are no simple answers to how things might turn out. The romance aspects of cruising are easy to see. But criminals and coroners, diplomats and detectives, could also be part of the mix! Romantic suspense, anyone?