Criminal law

What happens if you break the law on an aeroplane or at sea?

Find out which country’s laws apply if you commit a crime on board a plane or a boat and what could happen to you if found guilty of committing an offence.

08 June 2015

Plane flying in the sky over clouds

When on an aeroplane or boat you’re not on solid land so have you ever thought about what would happen if you committed an offence in the air or at sea?

In the UK, the courts have the power to deal with offences that occur whilst on the ground or flying over the United Kingdom. They can also have the same power on British-controlled flights outside the UK and UK airspace.

This means that foreign nationals who commit an offence on a British-controlled flight would be dealt with by our Courts, not those of their own country.

Certain circumstances mean that the UK has the power to deal with offences that take place on foreign aircraft outside UK airspace. If the incident would be an offence in the UK and under the law of the aircraft’s country, and after the crime the next landing is in the UK, then the UK courts would be able to prosecute. The crime would have needed to be committed “in flight,” which means from the moment the aircraft is powered up for take-off, to the moment the landing run ends at the end of the flight.

If the above circumstances aren’t met then any crime committed in the air would be prosecutable by the country controlling the aircraft. This is something to bear in mind as each country has its own laws and you sometimes don’t know what is legal in one country and not in another.

On board a ship, crimes committed are usually dealt with by the authority in the next port the ship docks in. Again the laws of the country apply and they may differ from your own. If they are not dealt with by the local authority then the jurisdiction of the country in which the boat or ship is registered is in force. Many cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas, Bermuda or Panama so they then sail under the laws of those countries.

There is also the jurisdiction of the waters in which the boat is sailing to consider. Under Maritime Law, a nation's law applies in its territorial waters which extend up to 12 miles from its coastline. So if a ship is leaving a port and a crime is committed, the laws of the country the ship has just left apply. And then from 12 to 24 miles off shore the ship enters a country's contiguous zone. This is an area over which a country has certain rights. For example, off the coast of the USA, the Coast Guard can board any vessel it thinks may be involved in drug smuggling. And then from 24 miles the ship is in international waters and the laws of the country that the ship sails under apply.

Crimes in the air or at sea can be difficult to manage and legal advice is always best in these situations. If you or a family member has been involved in a crime whilst on board an aircraft or ship, please get in touch with Slater and Gordon’s expert team of Criminal Defence Solicitors. Contact us online and we will call you.

All the above information was correct at the time of publication.

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