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The Vice-Admiralty Courts

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 (see The Sugar Act, Œconomy of Empire,) the authority of the courts was further expanded to include enforcement of customs and criminal charges for smuggling &ct. 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 the Floridas to Newfoundland and the judge was appointed and sent directly from England. The new court did not supercede 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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