Costa Rican law is based on the French Civil code, not the English legal system.
Government of Costa Rica has 4 branches
- Executive – President and cabinet ministers
- Legislative – Elected members
- Electoral Tribunal – takes over police and all government functions dealing with elections before each election. Members are usually unpaid volunteers who are judges. This is to ensure all elections are completely democratic and free.
The government ministers are not chosen from elected members, but are appointed by the president. There is an elected congress.
Any form of military is unconstitutional. It was banned in 1948.
There are 3 levels of courts
- District Courts
- Appellate Courts
- Supreme Court
The courts and legal system are so bogged down that they are ineffective. The simplest case can take up to ten years, and if the case is in agricultural court up to 20 years. The time frame is becoming longer, not reducing.
Because of the enormous delays, bureaucracy, and in many cases incompetence the system is more inclined to punish the innocent and protect the guilty. Those who do not wish to honour legal agreements can safely ignore them for many years, and criminals involved in fraud or other white-collar crime may not be charged for years after the victim reports the problem, if at all. The burden of proof will likely fall to the victim, who will have to pay a lawyer and other costs to get the criminal charged. It is frequently a legal system without justice, punishing the victim & rewarding the criminal, or person not wishing to honour legal commitments.
The Supreme Court has 4 chambers
- Commercial and civil law
- Administrative and labour law
- Criminal law
- Constitutional law. This is called “Sala Cuarta”.
Challenges of legislation on the grounds of constitutional law are common and often successful. Disputes over environmental issues, property rights, business rights and any other issues involving constitutional rights would be heard by Sala Cuarta. This court functions well, and provides remarkable protection against laws passed by the legislature that may offend anyone’s constitutional rights.
Lawyers and Notaries
All lawyers must be members of the “Colegio de Abogados”, or bar association. Notaries, who are empowered to take affidavits and dispositions, plus witness and certify the validity of documents, must be lawyers as well as being notaries. They must be registered with the Dirección Nacional de Notaridado, a part of the court system.
Rights against a Lawyer
While Costa Rica has many good lawyers, there are also dishonest lawyers. If a lawyer cheats you, you do have some recourse. Complaints against a lawyer who has violated the code of ethics of the Colegio de Abogados (bar association) can be filed with the Colegio. The inspectors’ office will then investigate the complaint and may call a conciliation meeting to see if settlement can be made. If no settlement is made, the Board of Directors will study the case, and if it finds fault they will hand down sanctions.
Complaints against a notary must be filed with the notary directorate of the court, after which a more extensive investigation will take place. If it is found the complaint has merit there will be a court case, which is handled like a criminal case with prosecutors from the notary court. The complainant then becomes a civil party to the action as well as victim.
If the notary is found guilty compensatory and punitive damages are awarded. There is a fund into which all notaries pay for a fidelity bond. The fund will only pay up to the amount the notary has contributed, so a new notary may have very little available. If funds are paid on behalf of a notary, the notary is suspended until the funds are replaced.
In 1998 the regulations were changed to prohibit notaries from putting a “hold harmless” clause into a contract, and contracts with that clause in it no longer protect the notary. The statute of limitations to prosecute a notary is two years.
Before hiring a lawyer consult with Casa Canada, or other reputable sources with considerable legal experience in Costa Rica. It is best to choose a specialist in the field where you need legal assistance.
Arbitration has become popular in contracts and agreements as the way to settle legal disputes outside of the courts. This process moves much quicker. The largest arbitration court is with the Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce.
Each party has the right to pick a judge, then the two judges agree on a third member of the panel. Cases are generally settled relatively quickly – in all but a few exceptions within a year.
For more information and assistance with understanding the Legal and Government System of Costa Rica