- Book, Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As a result of the talk on Friday 1 March by the Honourable Kenneth Carruthers Q.C., who was formerly Judge in Admiralty on the Supreme Court of New South Wales, some of our members may welcome guidance as to the nature of an Admiralty Court. The following information was taken from the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea.
The High Court of Admiralty was a particularly British institution, dealing with maritime causes, such as piracy and prize, which provided the Lord High Admiral, one of the great officers of state, with the majority of his income. According to the Black Book of the Admiralty, this court of jurisdiction was founded in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), but a more probable date is during the reign of Edward III (1336-60). It was regulated by statutes passed in 1391 and 1392, and its jurisdiction founded on the laws of Oleron. At first separate admirals’ were appointed for the north, south, and west, each responsible for maritime law in their areas, but they were merged into a single high court in the early years of the 15th century. This court was empowered to try all cases arising from prize, and of crimes committed on board ships at sea or ‘being and hovering in the main stream of great rivers only beneath ( below) the bridges of the same rivers nigh to the sea’.
The judge of the High Court of Admiralty was appointed by Letters Patent under the Crown, and the Patent was usually all embracing to cover anything that could possibly happen at sea. The Patent of the last judge, appointed in 1867, gave him the power to take cognizance of ‘all causes civil and maritime, also all contracts, complaints, offences or suspected offences, crimes, pleas, debts, exchanges, accounts, policies of assurance, loading of ships, and all other matters and contracts which relate to freight due for the use of ships, transportation, money or “bottomry … to arrest … all ships, persons, things, goods, wares, and merchandise, to enquire by the oaths of honest and lawful men of all things which ought to be enquired after, and mulct, arrest, punish, chastise, and reform ….’ He also had jurisdiction to ‘reform nets too straight and other unlawful engines and instruments whatsoever for the catching of fishes’.
But the great work of the Admiralty Court, particularly during the 18th and first part of the 19th centuries, was in the condemnation of prize. Admiralty court practice in respect of prize was universally recognised, and to deal with the immense volume of such cases which came before it, and many from foreign stations, vice-admiralty courts were set up to sit in certain colonial centres. The volume of such cases during years of hostilities often ran into 1,000 a year, and in some years more than 2,000 were brought before the Court.
In 1875, by the operation of the Judicature Acts of 1873 and 1875, the High Court of Admiralty was merged with the other High Courts of England into the High Court of Justice, thus finally severing the connection of the High Court of Admiralty with the office of Lord High Admiral. The badge of the Admiralty Court was a silver oar, in the shape of a mace, which was carried in procession and laid on the table in court in front of the judge whenever a case was heard; it is now the badge of the office of the Admiralty Marshal, who is an officer of the Court, though still placed before the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court when he sits on a maritime cause.
In the USA the source of admiralty jurisdiction is Article 3, para. 2, of the US Constitution, and in addition to the high seas, embraces the Great Lakes and navigable rivers. When it was a British colony, vice-admiralty courts exercised maritime jurisdiction on a local basis, but after the Declaration of Independence, such local jurisdiction was transferred to the federal government. The extent of admiralty jurisdiction exercised by the USA has been defined as ‘that defined by the Statutes of Richard II, under the construction given to them by contemporary or immediately subsequent courts of admiralty’. Thus the US admiralty jurisdiction embraces all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, or offences.
In France, admiralty jurisdiction is exercised by the civil courts and based on the Code Napoleon, although there are some special commercial tribunals which deal particularly with shipping matters. Spain. Portugal, Belgium, Italy and Greece have also adopted codes based on the Code Napoleon in which admiralty jurisdiction is exercised by the civil courts. Germany also has no admiralty court as such, but commercial courts have power to give judgement in appropriate shipping causes. In Holland, maritime cases are tried by the ordinary civil tribunals.
The Scandinavian nations (Sweden in 1891, Denmark in 1892, and Norway in 1893) adopted a maritime code which, although intended to apply equally in each nation, differs slightly in each. Maritime causes in Norway come before permanent maritime courts set up in the larger towns; in Denmark and Sweden they come before local courts set up temporarily when required. In each nation appeals from the lower courts lie to the supreme court.