what law applies in a casino on a cruise ship miles out to sea?

Cruise ships have long been synonymous with carefree, even rule-free breaks from life on land. On-board water parks, endless buffets, world-class performers and late-night bars are now the norm on many major cruise liners.

But as on the ground, things can go terribly wrong. And when it does, the question of the rules that apply on board a ship is suddenly drawn into the light.

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

Related: P&O Cruises Australia to shut down early next year

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

But what is the status of gambling at sea?

What kind of gambling does a cruise offer?

Casinos – featuring gaming tables and poker machines – are common on large mainstream cruise ships and some smaller 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 more than 1,600m2.

The popularity of onboard casinos is due in part to their links to traveler loyalty accounts, offering points that can be used to pay for food, drinks and future cruises.

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

But while it works, P&O casino users become members of its Players Club, in which “the more points you earn, the more benefits you get”, states the company’s website.

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

What is the law on board?

Within 12 nautical miles of land, ships are usually governed by the laws of that country or state. Outside that limit they generally fall under the laws of the nation in which they are registered.

“Not only are you covered by the law of the flag, but you are governed by the law of your nationality, which carries 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, there is a provision in the UK Gambling Act which means that the Gambling Commission, the UK gambling regulator, has no remit in relation to the gambling operations of vessels if they are traveling to international waters. Operators must be licensed by the Commission unless the customer, not the operator, is in the UK.

On cruises in international waters, offenses are not recognized in the UK or other jurisdictions – such as venues offering a line of credit for gambling or offering free alcoholic drinks as a way to encourage gambling.

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

Beyond 12 nm, “anything goes, as far as gaming is concerned”, says Stephens.

Has the legal status of cruises increased their popularity?

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

Liners of the 1920s and 1930s, including the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, had casinos – and offered a way around US alcohol prohibition.

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

Is gaming regulated on board?

A spokesperson for P&O Cruises Australia, which is owned by Carnival, said the company has “responsible gambling behavior policies on all P&O ships and [they] take those policies seriously”.

The company’s website says that includes giving guests information and resources “to help them make informed choices about how they gamble” and “initiatives such as responsible gambling education for our staff as well as self-help materials and programs self-exclusion for our guests. “.

The spokesman said it was inappropriate to comment on Dixon’s death while a coroner’s inquest was underway, and that the company was cooperating fully with the investigation.

P&O is a member of industry body Cruise Lines International Association, which has its own gaming policy based on the rules of play in Nevada, New Jersey and England, its website says.

These rules include minimum and maximum table betting limits, adult-only play, regular inspections and audits, and mandatory surveillance.

How are those regulations enforced?

Russell says the responsible conduct of gaming codes are difficult to enforce even on land, and there are problems with gambling relying on self-exclusion.

Related: ‘Devastating blow’: what if your cruise turns out to be too much sea and not enough scenery?

“We know that [intervention] it usually doesn’t happen and it’s not necessarily a failure of the team,” he says. “It’s really hard to tell when someone is getting out of control. You don’t know how much someone has in their bank account, so it’s very difficult for the team to get involved.”

Carol Bennett, chief executive of the Gambling Reform Alliance, says the co-morbidities of alcohol and gambling could be higher on cruises due to the isolation of passengers from support and services – making safeguards doubly necessary.

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

How is flag law policed?

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 longer that ship is away from home, the more difficult it is. that logistics.”

At sea, there is a long and strong tradition of absolute authority of the ship’s master.

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