It is an inherent risk in the working lives of seafarers that they may be subjected to criminal charges either of a professional or a non-professional nature. Seafaring is transnational by nature. As seafarers transit from port to port, they are subject to the entire range of criminal laws of those port states. They cannot know and they are unlikely to have been warned about local criminal laws, and hence they are at risk of committing an offence without any awareness or intention to do so. Further, in recent years, several legal developments at international, regional and national levels have criminalised a number of previously considered lawful seafaring activities and created a blame culture, particularly in relation to environmental incidents such as oil pollution.
In an era where ‘human rights’ are considered sacrosanct and ‘fairness’ a right in itself, seafarers sometimes seem to be excluded from the entitlements accorded to others. They may be foreign nationals, and after an incident there is often a reluctance to release seafarer defendants or witnesses who are deemed to be a ‘flight risk’, and who might not appear at a subsequent trial. They are, therefore, treated differently and less fairly than nationals, and are often discriminated against. They might have the continued support of their employers, but if they are less fortunate once the ship itself is released, they may find themselves friendless in a strange land, facing charges that are incomprehensible to them under a wholly alien system of justice, and with defence counsel unfamiliar with the technical nuances of a maritime scene. Language, and the lack of adequate translation facilities, might well be a serious handicap.