Vice–Admirals and Vice–Admiralty Courts of British Columbia

by John M. MacFarlane 2016

Court House

Vice–Admiralty Court in the Courthouse on Bastion Square (Photograph from the Nauticapedia collection.)

Admiralty courts were originally established to resolve disputes among merchants and seamen. When Great Britain decided to step up enforcement of the Trade and Navigation acts the authority of the courts was further expanded to include enforcement of customs and criminal charges for smuggling. In many cases the jurisdiction of Vice–Admiral and Common–Law courts overlapped. Customs officials and merchants could bring action in whichever court they thought would bring the most favorable resort.

Originally it was said that the legal concept of the Vice–Admiralty courts was that a defendant was assumed guilty until he proved himself innocent. Failure to appear as commanded resulted in an automatic guilty verdict.

Vice admiralty courts were jury–less courts which were located in British colonies. They were granted jurisdiction over local legal matters related to maritime activities. Maritime activities included dispute settling between merchants and seamen. Judges were given five percent of confiscated cargo, if they found a smuggling defendant guilty. This gave judges financial incentives to find defendants guilty.

This debate was fuelled by the desire for autonomy from England and the disagreement among Canadian politicians regarding which court was best suited to exercise admiralty jurisdiction. In 1891, more than thirty years after this debate began, the Exchequer Court of Canada, a national admiralty court, was declared, replacing the unpopular British vice–admiralty courts. The jurisdiction of this court was generally consistent with the existing English admiralty jurisdiction; it was not until 1931 that Canada was able to decide the jurisdiction of its own court. Since then, this jurisdiction has been enlarged by federal legislative measures, most notably the Federal Court Act of 1971, which continued the Exchequer Court under the Federal Court of Canada.

Before 1971, Admiralty Courts in Canada were called Colonial Courts of Admiralty or Vice–Admiralty Courts and from 1859 to 1971, an Admiralty Court existed in British Columbia. During the colonial period, local judges were appointed to the Vice–Admiralty Court of England and heard admiralty matters in British Columbia. This system remained in place until 1891 when Canada passed the Admiralty Act, (1891), creating a system of district Admiralty Courts as part of the Exchequer Court of Canada. One of these district courts was in British Columbia. In 1971, the Federal Court replaced the Exchequer Court and is currently the court which hears admiralty matters.

The Vice–Admiralty Court for British Columbia was established in the Court house on Bastion Square in Victoria BC. Everything from trials of murder to sealing laws were heard within its walls. In fact, it is the oldest Vice Admiralty court in British Columbia still in use today, however, the trials heard today are not nearly as interesting as in the past. Currently it operates as a Tax Court.

The building, which features traditional Victorian architecture, was built in 1889, by H.O. Tiedemann. Since its first trial, the Courtroom has seen many key historical figures cross its threshold, including the talented architect Francis Rattenbury. Most notably perhaps, was the infamous (famous) Chief Justice Matthew Baille Begbie, aka the "Hanging Judge", who presided over the court and meted out his judgments swiftly and colourfully. Begbie served as a Judge of the Vice–Admiralty Court 1858–1870.

The Vice–Admirals of British Columbia were delegated the authority to form Vice–Admiralty Courts. These were always additional commissions held by the Governors of the Crown Colonies of Vancouver Island or British Columbia.

Sir James Douglas

Governor Sir James Douglas (Vice–Admiral of Vancouver Island) (Photograph from Nauticapedia collection.)

Richard Blanshard

Governor Richard Blanshard (Vice–Admiral of Vancouver Island) (Photograph from Nauticapedia collection.)

Arthur Kennedy

Governor Arthur Edward Kennedy (Vice–Admiral of Vancouver Island) (Photograph from Nauticapedia collection.)

The old court house on Bastion Square in Victoria BC is the the location where the Vice–Admiralty Court sat in judgment on cases. The building is now vacant.

Vice-Admiralty Court

The Court Room was on the third floor of the building. (Photograph from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Vice-Admiralty Court

Lawyers who pleaded cases here, that I interviewed, said that the layout and space made for a very intimate experience. The accused in the box, the witnesses, the lawyers, the jury, and the judge were all in close proximnity. They said they felt it added to the carrying out of justice. (Photograph from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Vice-Admiralty Court

Several courts met in the room and judges from the time of Matthew Baillie Begbie sat on the bench. (Photograph from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Vice-Admiralty Court

The Vice-Admiralty Court also sat here. (Photograph from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Vice-Admiralty Court

The court room. (Photograph from the John MacFarlane collection.)


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) Vice–Admirals and Vice–Admiralty Courts of British Columbia. Nauticapedia.ca 2016. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Vice_Admiral.php

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