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Report No. 151

Chapter 4

Development of the Admiralty Jurisdiction in India

4.1. The first Charter was granted in 1726 to the United East India Company (after the union of the old and new Companies), establishing at the settlements of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, Mayor's Courts, each comprising of a Mayor and nine Aldermen. The Mayor's Court was a Court of Record and it had jurisdiction to try, hear and determine all civil suits, actions and pleas within the respective towns. The Governor and the five Seniors of the Council were appointed Justices of the Peace with power to hold Quarter Sessions of the peace and they were constituted into a Court of Record for the trial of all offences (except high treason) committed within the said towns or within ten miles of the same.

By a Charter of 1753 the Mayor's Courts, the Courts of Quarter Sessions, etc. were re-established with re-distribution of jurisdiction amongst them. In 1773, the Committee of Secrecy appointed to enquire into the state of the East India Company submitted its report. This report led to the passing of "the Regulation Act" 13 Geo. III, C. 63. This Act authorised His Majesty to establish a Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, consisting of a Chief Justice and three other Judges to exercise all Civil, Criminal, Admiralty and Ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William was to be a Court of Record. Accordingly, the Charter dated 26th March, 1774, established a Court of Record to be called "the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal" consisting of a Chief Justice and three other judges. Thus since 1774 the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William began to exercise Admiralty jurisdiction, Clause 26 of the Charter dated (26th March, 1774) declared the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal to be a "Court of Admiralty" in and for the provinces, counties, or districts, of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and all other dependent territories and islands adjacent thereunto.

The Supreme Court was given full power and authority to take cognizance of, hear, examine, try and determine all causes, civil and maritime, and all pleas of contracts, debts, exchanges, policies of assurance, accounts, charter-parties, agreements, loading of ships and all matters and contracts, which in any manner whatsoever relating to freight, or money due for ships hired and let out, transport-money, maritime usury or bottomry, and matters civil and maritime, whatsoever, between merchants, owners, and proprietors of ships and vessels, employed or used within the jurisdiction aforesaid or between others contracted, done, had, or commenced, in, upon of by the sea, or public rivers, or port, creaks, harbours, and places overflown, within the ebbing and flowing of the sea and high-water mark, throughout Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and the dependent territories adjacent thereunto, the cognizance whereof belonged to the jurisdiction of the Admiralty, as the same was used and exercised in England.

Clause 27 of the Charter conferred full power and authority on the Supreme Court to exercise jurisdiction according to the law and customs of the Admiralty in English in regard to maritime crimes committed upon the high seas within the aforesaid limits of jurisdiction, to punish offenders according to the civil and maritime laws and to deliver and discharge them, and to take cognizance and to arrest ships, persons, goods, etc.

Clause 27 further laid down that the proceedings in such cause or causes were to be according to the course and order of the said Charter dated 26th March, 1774 which inter alia provided that jurisdiction in maritime causes extended only to the subjects of the King residing in the Kingdom or 'provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and to persons in the service of the Company or of any of the subjects. Similar was the position at Bombay and Madras.

4.2. The 1861 Act (Stat. 24 and 25 Vict., Chap. 104) was enacted by the British Parliament for establishing High Courts of Judicature in India which, inter alia, authorised Her Majesty to establish High Courts of Judicature at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom. Section 9 of the Act authorised the High Courts, established under the Act, to exercise all such civil, criminal, admiralty and vice admiralty, testamentary, intestate, and matrimonial jurisdiction, original and appellate and all such powers and authority for and in relation to the administration of justice in their respective presidencies as Her Majesty might by Letters Patent grant and direct.

Clause 31 of the Letters Patent of 1862, inter alia, provided that the High Courts were to have such civil and maritime jurisdiction as was then exercised by the Supreme Court of Admiralty. Clause 32 conferred on the High Courts such criminal jurisdiction as was then exercised by the Supreme Court as a Court of Admiralty. The jurisdiction vested in the High Courts by the Clauses 31 and 32 of the Letters Patent, 1862 was continued by Clauses 32 and 33 of the Letters Patent dated 28th December, 1865.

4.3. The British Parliament enacted the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act of 1890 (53 and 54 Vict., C. 27) (hereinafter referred to as the 1890 Act). This Act was enforced in the 'British Possessions' on July 1, 1891. Section 2 of the Act provided that every court of law in a British possession which is for the time being declared in pursuance of the Act to be the Court of Admiralty and if such declaration is in force and if there be a court having unlimited civil jurisdiction, it shall be Court of Admiralty.

It further provided that such court will exercise all the powers which it possessed for the purpose of other civil jurisdiction. Clause 2 of section 2 declared that the jurisdiction of Court of Admiralty shall be over the like place, matters and things as the admiralty jurisdiction of the High Court and the Colonial Court of Admiralty may exercise such jurisdiction in like manner to full extent as the High Court in England.

Section 3 conferred power on the Colonial Legislature to enact law to declare any court of unlimited civil jurisdiction, whether original or appellate, to be a Colonial court of Admiralty. Such a law may further provide for exercise of jurisdiction under the Act and limit territorially or otherwise the extent of such jurisdiction. It further conferred power on the colonial legislature to enact law to confer upon any subordinate or inferior court such partial or limited jurisdiction as it may deem fit.

4.4. Pursuant to the aforesaid provision contained in section 3 of 1890 Act, the Indian Legislature enacted the Colonial Courts of Admiralty (India) Act (XVI) of 1891 (hereinafter referred to as the 1891 Act) wherein the High Courts of Judicature being courts of 'unlimited civil jurisdiction' were declared to be Colonial Courts of Admiralty established under the 1890 Act, at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

Section 2(2) of 1890 Act limited the jurisdiction of Colonial Courts of Admiralty established under the 1890 Act-jurisdiction of the High Court of England as it existed on the date of the enforcement of the Act. As already indicated, the jurisdiction of the High of Admiralty in England had been considerably expanded by the Acts of 1840 and 1861 passed by the British Parliament. This expanded jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty in England was conferred on the Colonial Court's of Admiralty by the 1890 Act.

4.5. Thereafter the Chartered High Courts of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras established under the Letters Patent continued to exercise admiralty jurisdiction in view of the declaration made by virtue of the 1891 Act. Their powers and jurisdiction were further continued successively by the Government of India Act, 1915 and Government of India Act, 1935.1 On the promulgation of the Constitution, the aforesaid Chartered High Courts continued to exercise admiralty jurisdiction in view of the saving provisions contained in Article 372 of the Constitution as no law or statute was enacted by the Parliament limiting or expanding the admiralty jurisdiction.

The High Courts in India after the promulgation of the Constitution enjoyed unlimited jurisdiction in civil matters, being the superior constitutional courts under the Constitution. In regard to the extent of admiralty jurisdiction, the High Courts had framed rules for regulating the procedure and practice in cases arising out of admiralty jurisdiction.

1. Sections 220 and 223.

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