Sugar Act Explained — Section 40

April 5, 1764

Section 40 of the Sugar Act of 1764 explains how violations that occur in Great Britain will be handled by the Courts of Record at Westminster or the Court of Exchequer in Scotland.

Sugar Act, 1764, Date, Taxes, Reaction, Grenville Acts, AHC

George Grenville, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was responsible for the Sugar Act of 1764, starting the movement in the 13 Colonies against Taxation Without Representation.

Understanding the Sugar Act of 1764

This entry is part of a series that explains the Sugar Act of 1764, including, rules, regulations, and penalties. To learn more, see History of the Sugar Act and Facts About the Sugar Act. Vocabulary, key people, and primary documents related to the Sugar Act are listed at the bottom of this article.

Section Section 40 — Handling Violations in Great Britain

XL. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all penalties and forfeitures herein before mentioned, which shall be incurred in Great Britain, shall and may be prosecuted, sued for, and recovered, in any of his Majesty’s courts of record at Westminister, or in the court of Exchequer in Scotland, respectively; and (all necessary charges for the recovery thereof being first deducted) shall be divided and applied, one moiety to and for the use of his Majesty, his heirs and successors, and the other moiety to the seizor or prosecutor.


Section 40 of the Sugar Act of 1764 lays out how penalties and forfeitures assessed in Great Britain should be handled and covers the process for distributing the money. The key points are:

  1. Jurisdiction — Penalties and forfeitures incurred in Great Britain can be prosecuted, sued for, and recovered in:
    1. Any of His Majesty’s courts of record at Westminster.
    2. The Court of Exchequer in Scotland.
  2. Application of Recovered Penalties — Once the necessary recovery charges are deducted, the remaining amount will be divided as follows:
    1. One Moiety — Half of the recovered amount will go to His Majesty (the king), his heirs, and successors.
    2. Other Moiety — The other half will go to the person who seized the goods or the prosecutor who brought the case.


The Sugar Act set up a controversial system for handling accusations regarding customs violations, including seizures of ships and goods, per the provisions of the Sugar Act. While cases in Great Britain were handled through the usual courts, cases in the American Colonies were directed to the Vice Admiralty Courts. Overall, the system entailed:

Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts

These courts had jurisdiction over maritime issues and trade disputes.

  1. Admiralty Courts — These courts had jurisdiction over maritime navigation and trade issues, such as violations of customs laws. They were responsible for adjudicating cases of seized ships and goods, ensuring compliance with the laws regulating trade and duties.
  2. Vice Admiralty Courts — These were similar to Admiralty Courts but operated in the American Colonies. They handled cases involving maritime trade, including the enforcement of the Sugar Act and the Navigation Acts.

Legal Process

The courts had the authority to hear and determine cases of customs violations, including disputes over whether duties had been paid, whether goods were lawfully imported or exported, and the legitimacy of seized goods.

When goods or ships were seized, the courts would decide whether the seizure was lawful. If it was found lawful, the goods would be forfeited. If the seizure was deemed unjustified, the claimant (the owner) could contest it in these courts but was limited.

Certification and Penalties

The courts were responsible for certifying whether there was probable cause for the seizure. If probable cause was established, the seizing officer would be protected from lawsuits, and the costs of the legal action would be limited for the claimant. The courts could order the payment of prosecution costs from customs revenue if the proceeds from the sale of seized goods were insufficient.

Controversy Over the Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts

The use of Admiralty and Vice Admiralty Courts in the American colonies created controversy for many reasons:

  • Lack of Jury Trials — One of the main points of contention over the Sugar Act was that these courts did not use jury trials. Each case was decided by judges who were appointed by the Crown. Because of this, the judges were considered biased against American merchants. This was seen as a denial of the colonists’ rights, which traditionally included the right to a trial by jury.
  • Consolidation of Authority — The Vice-Admiralty Courts centralized judicial power in the hands of a few Crown-appointed judges. At the time, colonial courts had authority over local cases, and the use of the Vice-Admiralty Courts for violations of the Sugar Act was viewed as an overreach of British authority that undermined the local courts. 
  • Harsh Penalties and Procedures — The penalties imposed by these courts were often severe. This included the forfeiture of ships and goods and large monetary fines. The requirement for claimants to provide security before contesting the seizure of ships and goods was another problem and made it hard for many colonists to defend themselves in court.
  • Perception of Corruption and Unfairness — Many colonists believed that the courts were corrupt and unfair, favoring British Customs Officials and merchants over American merchants. The protections given to Customs Officials, making it difficult for them to be charged with harassment, made the entire system suspect in the minds of Americans.
  • Economic Impact — The strict enforcement of the Sugar Act disrupted colonial trade and commerce and had a significant impact on the Rum Production Industry in the New England Colonies.


These terms and definitions provide more context for students studying the Sugar Act. For more on the Sugar Act as it relates to the AP US History curriculum, see Sugar ACT APUSH Review.

  • Authority — The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
  • Charges — Expenses incurred during the process of recovering penalties.
  • Court of Exchequer — A court in Scotland that deals with financial matters, including revenue and taxation.
  • Courts of Record — Courts whose proceedings are recorded and available as evidence of the facts.
  • Forfeitures — Penalties involving the loss of property or money due to a breach of law or regulations.
  • Heirs — People legally entitled to the property or rank of another upon that person’s death.
  • Incured — Brought upon oneself as a result of one’s actions.
  • Moiety — Half or one of two equal parts.
  • Penalties — Punishments or sanctions for breaking a law or rule.
  • Prosecuted — Conducted legal proceedings against someone.
  • Prosecutor — A person, especially a public official, who institutes legal proceedings against someone.
  • Recovered — Obtained again or brought back to a normal condition after being lost or taken.
  • Seizor — The person who seizes the goods in question.
  • Sued for — Instituted legal proceedings to claim compensation or to enforce a right.
  • Successors — People who succeed another in a position or office.
  • Westminster — A location in London where several of the highest courts of England and Wales are situated.

Key People

  • Samuel Adams — Adams helped lead opposition to the Sugar Act in Massachusetts. Went on to become a leader of the Boston Sons of Liberty and one of the most influential men behind the movement for independence.
  • George Grenville — Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Responsible for the design of the Sugar Act and introducing it to Parliament.
  • Stephen Hopkins — Governor of Rhode Island. Critic of the Sugar Act and its impact on the Rhode Island economy and colonial rights.
  • James Otis — Early advocate of the rights of Americans as British subjects. Argued against Writs of Assistance (1761) in the Paxton Case.

Primary Documents

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Sugar Act Explained — Section 40
  • Date April 5, 1764
  • Author
  • Keywords Sugar Act, What did Section 40 of the Sugar Act do
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2024