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Chancery, Admiralty And Slavery Courts in NC
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The three courts above mentioned constituted the chief agencies for the administration of justice, but there were three other courts of secondary importance. These courts, it would
seem, were instituted not so much because of any actual need of them, as because similar courts existed in the mother country, but because of the additional fact that they furnished more offices to be filled by the friends and kinsfolk of the Lords Proprietors.
The first of these to be mentioned is the Court of Chancery. This was, as in England, a Court of equity. Its duties do not seem to be either numerous or difficult. “The Governor and the members of his Majesty’s Council are the judges of this court,” and the presence of the Governor and at least five members of the Council are essential to its sittings. “The Governor may hold court when and where he pleases although it is seldom held oftener than twice a year.”
When the General Court was created, the chancery jurisdiction still remained in the hands of the Governor and Council. But other functions were added to these. Wills were proved before it, executor’s accounts were received by it, and lands were divided by it, and occasionally we find it hearing charges against citizens or against officers for misconduct in office.
The second is the Admiralty Court, which consisted of a Judge, a Register, a Marshal and an Advocate. The purpose of the court was to enforce the acts of trade. Previous to 1698, the duties of this court devolved upon the common law counts. In this year, however, North Carolina was attached to Virginia and the one tribunal served both states. But this arrangement did not last, and early in the next century the colony had its own Admiralty Court. This court was not only similar to the Admiralty Court of England, but was an actual offspring of it. Its officers were appointed by it, and to it reports must be made.
The third of this group of courts was the court for the trial of slaves. For slaves to be required to lie in prison for months at a time would entail too much loss of time and labor on their owners, and so a special court was established for the speedy trial of these slave criminals. It was rather a commission and was composed of three justices of the Precinct Court and three slave-owning free-holders. The magistrate whose commission was oldest, determined the time and place of meeting. After hearing the facts in the case the court had power to pass sentence extending to life or members; or it might inflict any corporal punishment short of this. It might also command the proper officer of the law to execute its sentence.
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