What law applies to a cruise ship located miles out to sea?

Cruise ships have long been synonymous with carefree, even without rules, breaks from life on land. Onboard water parks, endless buffets, world-class performers and late-night bars have become an absolute minimum on many large cruise ships.

But just like on land, things can go terribly wrong. And when they do that, the question of what rules apply on board a ship suddenly comes to light.

In early May, cruise passenger Shane Dixon fell to his death during the P&O Pacific Adventure. The body of the 50-year-old father of three was found 10 nautical miles off the coast of Sydney Heads.

Related: P&O Cruises Australia will close early next year

According to reports in the Daily Mail, Dixon’s brother Scott said Shane had been gambling in the ship’s casino. P&O declined to comment on the circumstances of Dixon’s death, and there is no evidence that P&O or the ship’s crew failed to comply with the law or were negligent in relation to it.

But what is the status of offshore gambling?

What kind of gambling do cruises offer?

Casinos – complete with gaming tables and poker machines – are common on large, regular cruise ships and some smaller luxury cruises. Norwegian Cruise Lines ships have a total of 4,800 slot machines, while Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas has a casino of over 1,600 m².

The popularity of onboard casinos is partly due to their link to travelers’ loyalty accounts, which offer points that can be used to pay for food, drinks and future cruises.

It was announced on Tuesday that P&O Cruises would close in early 2025 and two of the three ships would be integrated into sister line Carnival.

But while the company is in business, P&O casino users will become members of the Players Club, where the “more points you earn, the more benefits you get,” according to the company’s website.

Alex Russell, associate professor in the experimental gambling research laboratory at Central Queensland University, says land-based casino membership programs are not uncommon and also offer loyalty points that can then be used to make purchases.

What is the law on board?

Within twelve nautical miles of land, ships are generally subject to the laws of that country or state. Beyond that limit, they are generally subject to the laws of the country in which they are registered.

“You are not only subject to the law of the flag, but also to the law of your nationality, which you carry with you to a certain extent,” says Tim Stephens, professor of international law at Sydney Law School.

Like all P&O Cruises Australia ships, the Pacific Adventure sails under the British flag. However, the UK Gambling Act contains a provision which means that the Gambling Commission, the UK gambling regulator, has no jurisdiction over the gambling activities of a ship sailing to international waters. Operators only need a license from the commission if the customer, and not the operator, is in Britain.

On cruises in international waters, violations in Britain or other jurisdictions – such as extending a line of credit to a gambler or offering free alcoholic drinks as a way to encourage gambling – are not recognized.

To avoid any potential conflict between flag law and local laws, cruise ships open casinos and duty-free shops only when they are outside territorial waters.

Beyond 12nm, “anything is possible when it comes to gambling,” says Stephens.

Has the legal status of cruises contributed to their popularity?

Freedom from local laws has long been a huge selling point for cruises, says David Beirman, adjunct fellow in tourism and management at the University of Technology Sydney.

The ships of the 1920s and 1930s, including the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, all had casinos – and offered a way to get around the US alcohol ban.

“It was part of the glitz and glamor of what was, at least for the first-class passengers, a very glamorous industry. And because they sail in international waters, they are not bound by any country’s attitude toward gambling,” says Beirman.

Is gambling on board regulated?

A spokesperson for Carnival-owned P&O Cruises Australia said the company “has a responsible gaming policy on all P&O ships and [they] take this policy seriously.”

The company’s website says this includes providing guests with information and resources “to help them make informed choices about the way they gamble” and “initiatives such as responsible gambling education for our teams, as well as self-help materials and a self-exclusion program for our guests. ”.

The spokesperson said it was inappropriate to comment on Dixon’s death while a coronial inquiry was underway and the company was cooperating fully with the investigation.

P&O is a member of the trade organization Cruise Lines International Association, which has its own gambling policy based on rules in Nevada, New Jersey and England, according to the website.

These rules include communicating minimum and maximum betting limits at the table, adult-only play, regular inspections and audits, and mandatory supervision.

How are those rules enforced?

Russell says codes of conduct for responsible gambling are difficult to enforce, even on land, while relying on a gambler to self-exclude leads to problems.

Related: ‘A crushing blow’: What happens if your cruise changes and there’s too much sea and not enough sights?

“We know that [intervention] Most of the time that doesn’t happen and it’s not necessarily a shortcoming of the staff,” he says. “It’s very hard to tell when someone is spiraling out of control. You don’t know how much someone has in their bank account, so it is very difficult for the staff to intervene.”

Carol Bennett, the CEO of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, says co-morbidities related to alcohol and gambling on cruises could increase due to passengers being isolated from support and services – making precautions doubly essential.

“Questions need to be answered about these arrangements. Who takes responsibility and what does that look like? Who protects the people who go on these cruises?”

How is the law of the flag controlled?

John Kavanagh of Pacific Maritime Lawyers says: “Pragmatically, the flag state has a responsibility to investigate issues with that ship wherever it is, but the further away that ship is from home, the logistics of it make it very difficult.”

At sea there is a long and strong tradition of the absolute authority of the skipper.

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