Admiralty court

Admiralty court

Admiralty courts, also known as maritime courts, are courts exercising jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries and offences.


Admiralty Courts in England and Wales

Today Admiralty jurisdiction is exercised by the High Court of England and Wales. The admiralty laws which are applied in this court is based upon the civil law-based Law of the Sea, as well as statutory and common law additions.

Historically, there were a number of admiralty courts. From about 1360 the sea coast of England and Wales was divided into 19 districts, and for each there was a Vice Admiral of the Coast, representing the Lord High Admiral. From 1360 to 1875 a Judge served as the "Lieutenant, Official Principal and Commissary General and Special of the High Court of Admiralty, and President and Judge of the High Court of Admiralty". In 1887 the High Court of Admiralty was absorbed into the new Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court. No judges are now appointed for the local courts, and the judicial functions of the Lord High Admiral have been passed to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, where they continue to be exercised by the Admiralty Judge and other Commercial Court judges authorised to sit in Admiralty cases.

The sole survivor of the ancient local Courts of Admiralty is the Court of Admiralty for the Cinque Ports, which is presided over by the Judge Official and Commissary of the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports. This office is normally held by a High Court Judge who holds the appointment of Admiralty Judge. The jurisdiction of the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports extends from Shore Beacon, Essex, to Redcliffe, near Seaford, Sussex. It covers all the sea from Seaford to a point five miles off Cape Grisnez on the coast of France, and the coast of Essex (and Birchington, near Margate, Kent). The Court now sits only rarely, and the last full sitting was in 1914. Accordingly to general civilian practice, the registrar can act as deputy to the judge, and the only active role of the judge now is to take part in the installation of a new Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Appeal from the court's decisions lies to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Judge Official and Commissary of the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports

The jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to admiralty concern salvage and other legal issues.

Admiralty Court of Scotland

The Admiralty Court of Scotland, in Edinburgh, was abolished by the Court of Session Act 1830 and the Court of Session given Subject-matter jurisdiction for admiralty causes.(see Lord High Admiral of Scotland).[1]

Role in the American Revolution

During the period after the French and Indian War, Admiralty Courts became an issue that was a part of the rising tension between the British Parliament and their American Colonies. Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, these courts were given jurisdiction over a number of laws affecting the colonies. The jurisdiction was expanded in later acts of the Parliament, such as the Stamp Act of 1765.

The colonists' objections were based on several factors. The courts could try a case anywhere in the British Empire. Cases involving New York or Boston merchants were frequently heard in Nova Scotia and sometimes even in England. The fact that judges were paid based in part on the fines that they levied and naval officers were paid for bringing 'successful' cases led to abuses. There was no trial by jury, and evidence standards were weaker than in criminal courts. The government's objective was to improve the effectiveness of revenue and excise tax laws. In many past instances, smugglers would avoid taxes. Even when they were caught and brought to trial, local judges frequently acquitted the popular local merchants whom they perceived as being unfairly accused by an unpopular tax collector. Cases were decided by judges rather than juries.

Maritime jurisdiction in the United States

In the United States, the federal district courts have jurisdiction over all admiralty and maritime actions; see 28 U.S.C. § 1333.

In recent years, a conspiracy argument used by tax protesters is that an American court displaying an American flag with a gold fringe is in fact an "admiralty court" and thus has no jurisdiction. Courts have repeatedly dismissed this as frivolous.[2] [This reference is a criminal case with no reference to the IRS.]

Admiralty law

Vice admiralty courts were juryless courts located in British colonies that were granted jurisdiction over local legal matters related to maritime activities, such as disputes between merchants and seamen. Judges were given 5% of confiscated cargo, if they found a smuggling defendant guilty. This gave judges financial incentive to find defendants guilty.


The first vice-admiralty court was established in Australia in the colony of New South Wales in 1788. The first Vice-Admiral was Arthur Phillip and the first judge as Robert Ross. The court was abolished in 1911 when the Supreme Court of New South Wales was granted the admiralty jurisdiction of the court.


A vice admiralty court was formed in Nova Scotia to try smugglers and to enforce the Sugar Act of 1764 throughout British North America. From 1763–1765, when American smugglers were caught, they were tried by corrupt judges who received a percentage of the confiscated goods if the defendants were found guilty; therefore, defendants were more than likely to be found guilty.


  1. ^ "Court of Session Act 1830", Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom 69: 21, 1830-06-23, "the Court of Session shall hold and exercise original jurisdiction in all maritime civil causes and proceedings of the same nature and extent in all respects as that held and exercised in regard to such causes by the High Court of Admiralty before the passing of this Act" 
  2. ^ United States v. Mackovich, 209 F.3d 1227, 1233-1235, fn. 2 (9th Cir. 2000).

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