Archives Investigator
Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size
Archives Investigator

Agency Detail

Agency No. 1048
Agency Title  Vice Admiralty Courts
Start Date  12 Apr 1787
End Date  30 Jun 1911
Category  Court
Creation  Royal Letters Patent 12 April 1787
Abolition  Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act 1890 (UK)
Administrative History Note  The Vice Admiralty Court was established by Royal Letters Patent dated 12 April 1787 which authorised the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty: to constitute and appoint a Vice Admiral and also a Judge and other Officers requisite for a Court of Vice Admiralty within the Territory called New South Wales in like manner as Vice Admiral Judges and other proper officers of such Courts have been constituted in places where they have been usually heretofore appointed. (1)

Pursuant to this patent, on 30 April 1787, letters patent under the seal of the High Court of Admiralty appointed Governor Arthur Phillip to be Vice Admiral and Robert Ross as Judge in Vice-Admiralty. Justice Ross was given full power to take cognizance of and proceed in all causes civil and maritime according to the maritime laws and customs of our said High Court of Admiralty. His authority extended as well to offences or suspected offences (and to) crimes. (2)

Further letters patent were issued in May 1787 to appoint Commissioners under the Piracy Act 1698 to call and assemble a Court of Admiralty on shipboard or upon the land when and as often as occasion shall require to deal with cases of piracy, robbery, and felony on the high seas. It was under the patent relating to piracy rather than the general patent of April 1787, that the first Court of Vice-Admiralty was assembled in Australia. The Court thus established remained always an Imperial Court external to the ordinary court system. It was unaffected by the creation of three civil courts in New South Wales in 1814; nor was any of its jurisdiction withdrawn when in 1823, and again in 1828, when the Supreme Court was invested with a criminal jurisdiction over maritime offences. Its judge held office by virtue of an appointment from the British Admiralty and not through appointment as judge of the Colony. From an early stage its proceedings were regulated by an Imperial Act, the Vice-Admiralty Courts Act 1832, and by Rules and Tables of Fees promulgated under that Act.

The seizure of enemy property at sea was regulated by the Prize Court while civil and criminal matters arising from maritime activity where controlled by the Instance Court. In its early years, the Vice-Admiralty Court exercised Prize jurisdiction during times of hostility, particularly with Spain, France and Batavia. The First Prize sittings were held in May 1799.

In June 1812 the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty responded to a request by Judge Advocate Ellis Bent and issued warrants and other documents for the trial and condemnation of captured vessels. However, on 31 July 1813, these warrants were recalled. The Supreme Court was vested with Vice-Admiralty authority through the Act for the Better Administration of Justice in New South Wales, 1823 [4 George IV, act no 96] and The Australian Courts Act, 1828 [9 George IV, act no 83].

The Supreme Court, however, did not become a Court of Admiralty. It had only acquired jurisdiction over the subject matter of the criminal branch of the Instance Court. The Vice Admiralty Court still had restricted power over offences committed on the high seas, the Supreme Court, to that extent, had only concurrent, not exclusive, jurisdiction.

During the 1840s a systematic procedure for Vice-Admiralty cases was developed due to influence of Justice Kinchela (previously Attorney General) and the Master in Equity Justice Milford. Registers, called Assignation Books, and others described as Rough Assignation Books and Admiralty Notes, plus litigation records called Action Books were kept from 1841. A large number of warrants were issued out of the Vice-Admiralty Court in the 1840s and 1850s, but fewer over the following twenty years.

By 1863 Vice Admiralty Courts had been established in all the Australian Colonies. Although their jurisdiction was the same as that of the High Court of Admiralty, they did not succeed to the statutory additions made to that Court�s jurisdiction by the Admiralty Acts of 1840 and 1861. The Vice-Admiralty Courts Act 1863 (UK) realigned the practices of the colonial courts with that of the English Court. The Act restated a Vice-Admiralty Court�s jurisdiction over suits for

a) seaman�s wages b). pilotage c). Bottomry - a contract by which the owner of ship borrows for the use, equipment or repair of a vessel, and for a definite term pledges the ship (or the keel or bottom of the ship) as security; it being stipulated that if the ship be lost in the specified voyage, or during the limited time, by any of the perils enumerated, the lender shall lose the committed funds. The agreement or contract of bottomry is embodied in a bottomry bond. d). damage by collision e). breaches of navy regulations f) salvage g). droits of admiralty - rights or perquisites of the Admiralty which include goods found derelict at sea plus, enemy goods seized in British ports or property captured at sea during wartime.

Added to this the jurisdiction was extended to claims for master�s wages; towage; the building, equipping and repairing of ships; life salvage and necessaries

The Act also provided for a right of appeal to the Judicial Committee, provided for Rules of Court (eventually promulgated in 1883), and empowered the Judge in Vice-Admiralty to appoint a Registrar or Marshal.

To have an entirely separate Imperial Court, existing side by side by side with the ordinary colonial courts yet utilising their facilities and personnel, was widely regarded as unsatisfactory. Change was brought about by the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act 1890 (UK) which replaced the system of Vice-Admiralty Courts with a new system of Colonial Courts of Admiralty. The Act abolished every Vice- Admiralty Court in a British possession and replaced them with Colonial Courts of Admiralty. The Act commenced operation in the Australian colonies, except New South Wales and Victoria, on 1 July 1891. The Act did not come into force in the two largest colonies until 1 July 1911. On this date the Supreme Court of New South was became a Colonial Court of Admiralty. (3)


(1) Bennett J. M., A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, The Law Book Company, Sydney, 1974, p. 153. (2) Ibid. p. 153. (3) New South Wales Government Gazette, No. 81 21 June 1911, p. 3366.

Image  Sorry no image is available for this agency
Preceding Agencies 
Succeeding Agencies 
Superior Agencies 
Subordinate Agencies 
Functions exercised by this agency 
1 Law and Order 12 Apr 1787 ~ 30 Jun 1911   Detail
Organisations controlling this agency 
Persons relating to this agency 
67 Samuel Frederick Milford -  Detail
175 John Wylde -  Detail
Record series created by this agency 
5828 Notebooks: Vice-Admiralty [Chief Justice F.M. Darley] 1 Jan 1886 ~ 31 Dec 1908   Detail
5870 Indexes to notebooks [Chief Justice J. Dowling] 1 Jan 1829 ~ 31 Dec 1844   Detail
5872 Notebooks: Equity and Vice-Admiralty [Chief Justice J Dowling] 1 Jan 1841 ~ 31 Dec 1844   Detail
5873 Notebooks: Vice-Admiralty [Chief Justice J Dowling] 1 Jan 1838 ~ 31 Dec 1838   Detail
5926 Notebooks: Vice-Admiralty [Justice P. Faucett] 1 Jan 1873 ~ 31 Dec 1873   Detail
7518 Notebooks: Vice Admiralty [Justice W. Owen] 1 Jan 1897 ~ 31 Dec 1907   Detail
14492 Instance and prize papers 1 Jan 1795 ~ 31 Dec 1825   Detail
14493 Case papers [Vice Admiralty Court] 1 Jan 1826 ~ 31 Dec 1911   Detail
14494 Index to Vice Admiralty Court papers [Vice Admiralty Court] 1 Jan 1841 ~ 31 Dec 1884   Detail
14495 Assignation books 25 Jun 1810 ~ 3 Apr 1866   Detail
14496 Rough assignation books 1 Jan 1861 ~ 31 Dec 1878   Detail
14497 Action books 1 Jan 1841 ~ 31 Dec 1883   Detail
14498 Minute books [Vice Admiralty Court] 1 Jan 1884 ~ 31 Dec 1912   Detail
14499 Registrar's minutes of proceedings [Vice Admiralty Court] 1 Jan 1890 ~ 31 Dec 1901   Detail
14500 Papers re the appointment of officers of the Court 18 May 1840 ~ 19 Aug 1874   Detail
14501 Copy of Rules and Regulations to be observed on execution of decrees for sale 8 Sep 1855 ~ 8 Sep 1855   Detail
14502 Copies of letters sent [Vice Admiralty Court] 4 Jan 1907 ~ 22 May 1911   Detail
14503 Fees books of monies owed by proctors [Vice Admiralty Court] 1 Jan 1876 ~ 31 Dec 1894   Detail
14504 Caveat payment book 1 Jan 1897 ~ 31 Dec 1925   Detail
14505 Caveat Warrant and Release Book -  Detail

Simple Search |  Advanced Search  |  Structured Search 
Back to Investigator Start Page