When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
July 6, 1768– The Vice Admiralty Court Act — gave Royal naval courts, rather than colonial courts, jurisdiction over all matters concerning customs violations and smuggling. The Vice-Admiralty Court Act added three new royal admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston to aid in more effective prosecutions. These courts were run by judges appointed by the Crown and who were awarded 5% of any fine the judge levied when they found someone guilty. The decisions were made solely by the judge, without the option of trial by jury. In addition, the accused person had to travel to the court of jurisdiction at his own expense; if he did not appear, he was automatically considered guilty.
Vice-Admiralty courts existed throughout the empire. They served one purpose only, to resolve disputes among merchants and seamen. At the end of the French and Indian War eleven such courts were in operation in British America. Each court served a certain region. Some of them handled several colonies, while Pennsylvania had its own. These courts were different in operation from the Common-Law courts. They did not use a jury system, the judge heard all evidence and testimony and handed down a ruling. For most of the history of the colonies, these courts were occupied only with commercial matters. Judges were appointed from the local population and paid from the treasuries of the colonies served. During the French and Indian War their jurisdiction was expanded to the business of condemning enemy ships, impounded by the British, and to disposal of their contents. When Great Britain decided to step up enforcement of the Trade and Navigation acts, the authority of the courts was further expanded to include enforcement of customs and criminal charges for smuggling. In many cases the jurisdiction of Vice-Admiral and Common-Law courts overlapped. Customs officials and merchants could bring action in whichever court they thought would bring the most favorable resort. This presented an apparent injustice from the perspective of those charged. They argued that the lack of a trial-by-jury was an infringement of their “constitutional” rights. However the distinction was minor in practice because all of the judges were drawn from the local population. A provision of the Currency Act established a “super” Vice-Admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1764. This court had jurisdiction from Florida to Newfoundland and the judge was appointed and sent directly from England. The new court did not supersede the authority of the existing courts. Rather it was to be used on occasions when officials felt that the local courts might rule against them. This court could be used not only to prosecute, but to persecute those thought to be enemies of Great Britain. Officers could require anyone charged to transport themselves to distant Nova Scotia, to appear before an obviously biased court. The legal concept of the Vice-Admiralty courts was that a defendant was assumed guilty until he proved himself innocent. Failure to appear as commanded resulted in an automatic guilty verdict.
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