Criminal Law Update – Crime on the Water

News Posted: April 13, 2023

Crime on the water

New legislation (The Merchant Shipping (Watercraft) Order 2023) has been introduced to crack down on the dangerous misuse of watercraft such as jet skis, with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency being granted more powers to prosecute perpetrators of accidents.

The new law came into force on 31 March 2023, before the busy summer period and enables watercraft users to be prosecuted and bound by the same laws that apply to ships in order to help to prevent accidents.

This follows a boom in the watercraft industry during the pandemic, with the number, size, power and availability of watercraft like jet skis increasing, and their use in UK waters rising significantly.

Watercraft are not currently covered by wider maritime safety legislation. The new law will mean those found guilty of using their watercraft in a dangerous manner could receive an unlimited fine and/or up to 2 years in prison.

For those who cause accidents involving loss of life, the new offences could be used to better prosecute perpetrators alongside wider manslaughter charges.

Personal and recreational watercraft will also be bound by the ‘Highway Code of the sea’ – international regulations which require users to act safely by maintaining a lookout, driving at safe speeds and outlining their responsibilities to other vessels.

Why is this change in law being made?

Until the Court of Appeal decision in R v Goodwin [2005] EWCA Crim 3184, it was understood that the term “ship” enjoyed a wide definition encompassing, among other things, the mechanically propelled personal watercraft the operation of which was at issue in that case. In light of that decision, the meaning of a “ship”, and so the scope of the Maritime Shipping Act (‘MSA’)  and the Harbours Act 1964, has been narrowed to exclude personal watercraft.

The decision has also cast doubt on whether other descriptions of vessel might fall within the definition of “ship” for the purposes of relevant legislation.

These changes are designed to remove any doubt and ensure that personal watercraft are caught by safety rules.

This new law will apply the relevant provisions of the MSA and Harbours Act 1964 together with relevant secondary legislation to powered personal and recreational watercraft including offences relating to dangerous use.

This will mean that, should there be an accident or incident involving these craft, if the cause is dangerous use, those responsible can be prosecuted.

The legislation recognises that a number of actions have responsibilities, or may impact on, an incident or accident involving watercraft and applies relevant duties to the owners, operators and users of watercraft. These terms are already used and well understood within the sector and the statutory instrument defines what those duties are.

The new law will apply in all UK waters regardless of whether these are managed by a local or harbour authority. The application of the MSA and Harbours Act 1964 will not affect any local byelaws or harbour directions which have been introduced to manage personal or recreational watercraft but they will provide those authorities, and others which do not have any provision in place, with an additional route to prosecution.

They will also enable those authorities which do not currently have the necessary powers to introduce byelaws and harbour directions to control watercraft once in force.

How can we help?

We ensure we keep up to date with any changes in legislation and case law so that we are always best placed to advise you properly. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact our Crime Team on 01743 248545 or email

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