18th May 1905

A ship’s captain broke the law… or did he?

The law was quite clear: William Pitman’s boat, Venus, was only licensed to carry 50 passengers. He was caught carrying 80 and ended up in court.

But, Pitman argued, it wasn’t as simple as that. Pitman had been carrying passengers from France to Jersey, not the other way around, in which case he was obliged to comply with French law when casting off. And French law said he could carry 99 passengers – almost twice as many as Jersey allowed. Where they were being dropped off was largely irrelevant.

A cross-border dispute

The issue was so taxing that the court convened a special sitting to decide who was right and, after some skilful arguing from Pitman’s advocate, it determined that French law applied in this case. In carrying 80 passengers, although more than Jersey permitted, he was well below the legal limit for that leg of his journey.

The Harbours Committee disagreed, and referred the matter to the Royal Court, claiming that the judge at the police court, where the case had first been heard, had exceeded his authority. Worse, when the Bailiff was shown Pitman’s license, he spotted that it had been signed not by the Harbour Master, but the Greffier, rendering it invalid. Not only was Pitman forbidden to carry as many passengers as he had done: he wasn’t licensed to carry any at all.

Ultimately, perhaps surprisingly, this actually worked in Pitman’s favour. After the court had retired to consider its verdict, the Greffier announced that as Pitman’s licence wasn’t valid, he couldn’t be prosecuted for having contravened it.


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