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. The former Federal Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture was established by the United States in 1780 to hear appeals of prize cases from state prize courts and lasted through 1787.
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 (see Prize Courts Act 1894 and 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.
In France, the prize council (Conseil des prises) has jurisdiction to determine the issue of the prize. Since 2007, Piracy has been transferred to criminal courts and the council's jurisdiction is reduced to war time. The way of appeal is open to the French president of the Republic acting as judge.
The International Prize Court was an international court proposed at the beginning of the 20th century, to hear prize cases. An international agreement, the Convention Relative to the Creation of an International Prize Court, was established at The Hague on October 18, 1907, but this was never ratified or implemented.
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