VICE-ADMIRALTY COURTS. The branch of Anglo-American law dealing with maritime matters is known as admiralty law. The High Court of Admiralty was created in England in the fourteenth century, and spawned regional tribunals known as vice-admiralty courts. Because the imperial government did not establish vice-admiralty courts in the colonies at the start of settlement, most admiralty cases were tried in civil courts. The Navigation Act of 1696 systematically established vice-admiralty courts in the American colonies, with a jurisdiction broader than that of their English counterparts, in order to enable them to enforce the Navigation Acts. Cases involving the seizure of ships at sea during wartime were placed under the jurisdiction of these courts in 1708, as were cases involving the sequestration of timber for use by the Royal Navy in 1722. The Townshend Acts of 1767 extended the system by establishing vice-admiralty courts at Halifax, (Nova Scotia), Boston (Massachusetts), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), and Charleston (South Carolina). The older courts continued to function, but the new ones took over appellate jurisdiction, although further appeal to the Privy Council was permitted.
Vice-admiralty courts were unpopular with Americans because their purpose was to enforce Britain's control over the colonial economy. It was particularly galling that the courts were staffed by imperial placemen who exercised summary jurisdiction over local merchants. The absence of trial by jury reduced local influence on the courts and allowed them more latitude in helping the Customs Commissioners prosecute smugglers and collect the fees levied by the various acts of trade.
revised by Harold E. Selesky