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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. The Admiralty court is now housed in the Rolls Building.
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 1875, the High Court of Admiralty was absorbed into the new Probate, Divorce and Admiralty (or PDA) Division of the High Court, much to the chagrin of the Admiralty judges. When the PDA Division was in turn abolished and replaced by the Family Division, the "probate" and "admiralty" jurisdictions were transferred to, respectively, the Chancery Division and to the new "Admiralty Court" (a subset of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court). Strictly speaking, there was no longer an "Admiralty Court" as such, but the admiralty jurisdiction allocated by the Senior Courts Act 1981 was (and is) exercised by the Admiralty Judge and other Commercial Court judges authorised to sit in Admiralty cases. When these judges sat, it became convenient to call the sitting the "Admiralty Court". Now that a number of courts (the Chancery Division, the Admiralty and Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court) have moved to the Rolls Building, the term "Admiralty Court" has become the official name once again.
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.
The jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to admiralty concern salvage and other legal issues.
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).
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.
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. Nevertheless, practice rules in most court require any challenges to jurisdiction to be made immediately before other pleadings. Any courts can rule on any various issue, including maritime or admiralty if applicable to the claimants. If a successful challenge to a criminal prosecution under admiralty jurisdiction were to be made, the matter would be dismissed before any plea could be entered.
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.