A court formerly convened under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 either by the captain of one of HM ships on foreign station or by a consular officer. Its purpose was to inquire into the abandonment or loss of any British ship, any complaint by an officer or seaman of such a ship, or any other matter requiring investigation in the interests of the owners of the ship or its cargo. It reported to the Department of Trade and Industry and had limited disciplinary powers. A naval court consisted of three to five members, each of whom was either a naval officer, the master of a British merchant ship, a consular officer, or a British merchant.
Inquiries into the fitness or conduct of an officer are now governed by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, at the instigation of the Secretary of State. Inquiries are held in public and are conducted by a lawyer or judge, assisted by one or more assessors appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The inquiry may cancel or suspend any certificate of competence issued to the officer concerned, or censure him, if satisfied that he did not act to the standards required of him.