A prize court is a court (or even a single individual, such as an ambassador or consul) authorized to consider whether or not a ship has been lawfully captured or seized in time of war or under the terms of the seizing ship's letters of marque and reprisal. A prize court may order the sale or destruction of the seized ship, and the distribution of any proceeds to the captain and crew of the seizing ship. A prize court may also order the return of a seized ship to its owners if the seizure was unlawful, such as if seized from a country which had proclaimed its neutrality.
Prize courts were common in the 17th through 19th centuries during times of American or European naval warfare.
Under current U.S. law, pursuant to 10 U.S.C. §§ 7651–7681, the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction in prize cases, but due to changes in the nature of naval warfare, no prize cases have been heard since the statutes were adopted in 1956.
In England and Wales, prize jurisdiction is exercised by the Admiralty Court, part of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. (Senior Courts Act 1981, ss. 20(1)(d), 27 and 62(2)), and by way of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
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