The barratry of the shipmaster in early modern law: The approach of Italian and English law courts

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For a long time, the concept of barratry (at least in its maritime meaning) was one and the same on both sides of the Channel. The barratry of the shipmaster was part of the mercantile usages, and it identified the intentionally blameworthy conduct of the master. When law courts began to decide on insurance litigation they were confronted with a notion quite alien to them. Broadly speaking, the shipmaster’s barratry could well be considered a fraud of sort. But in order to decide on its occurrence in a specific case, law courts had to analyse it in legal terms, and so according to the specific legal categories of their own system. The point ceases to be trivially obvious if we think that the different legal framework of civil and common law courts progressively led to very different interpretations of the same thing. Thus, with the shift of insurance litigation from mercantile justice to law courts maritime barratry began to acquire increasingly different features in the two legal systems. Very often, the very same conduct of the shipmaster was considered as negligent by civil law courts and barratrous by common law courts. The difference was of great practical importance, for many policies excluded barratry from the risks insured against. So, depending on the kind of law court, an insurer could be charged with full liability for the mishap or walk away without paying anything. If the beginning of the story was the same, its end could not have been more different.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)504-574
Number of pages71
Journal Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis
Issue number4
Early online date4 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2019


  • barratry
  • fraud of the shipmaster
  • case law
  • law courts
  • comparative legal history


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