Historical Overview of Limitation in the United Kingdom
Legislation in the United Kingdom relating to limitation of liability for maritime claims had its roots in the Responsibility of Shipowners Act 1733, which allowed a shipowner to limit his liability in respect of theft by a master or crew to the value of the ship and freight. This was an early example of legislation designed to promote the development of the merchant fleet. The right to limit was extended in 1786 to include any act by the master or crew occurring without the privity of the shipowner. Further statutes followed, but the principal consolidating statute was the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, which drew together in section 503 earlier legislation relating to the limitation of liability for maritime claims. The United Kingdom was a signatory to the 1924 and 1957 International Limitation Conventions and adopted many of the provisions of those Conventions. This was done not by incorporating the Conventions en bloc into domestic legislation but by amending section 503 of the 1894 Act. Thus the Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners and Others) Act 1958 incorporated into United Kingdom law many of the provisions of the 1957 Limitation Convention by amending section 503 of the 1894 MSA. This “patchwork” approach produced a number of problems in the United Kingdom over the years because the amendments made to section 503 did not always accurately mirror the Convention provisions on which they were based. Nor did the approach lend itself easily to judicial interpretation, Lord Denning complaining in 1969 that section 5 of the 1958 Act which amended section 503, was “not a piece of English. It is only a collection of word-symbols”. 1
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