A Guide to Legal Research in Costa Rica
By Roger A. Petersen
Published October 2005
See the April 2007 update!
Roger A. Petersen is an Attorney at Law, member of both the Costa Rican Bar and Florida Bar Association. He is the author of The Legal Guide to Costa Rica and a partner with Alliance Law Group of San Jose, Costa Rica.
Update to an article previously published on LLRX.com on November 18, 2002
Table of Contents
II. A Brief History
C. General Laws
D. Case Law
Costa Rica is a democratic republic which is located in Central America. To the north it borders Nicaragua and to the south Panama. The west coast borders the Pacific Ocean and the east coast borders the Caribbean Sea.
Capital: San José
Population: Approximately 4.3 million people
Male: 2.2 million, Female: 2.1 million
Form of Government Democratic Republic
Currency: Costa Rican Colon – View exchange rate information at the Central Bank of Costa Rica web site
Area: The country has a territory of 51,000 km2
Literacy Rate: 94.8%
Life Expectancy 73.49 males and 76.68 Females
Official Religion Catholic
National Emblems Flower: Guaria Orchid. Tree: Guanacaste Tree. Bird: Yiguirro
Costa Rica was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. Since Costa Rica had no resources to exploit, the Spaniards had little interest in the Colony and the first viable settlement was established in 1562 when Juan Vasquez de Coronado founded the city of Cartago. Costa Rica acquired its independence from Spain in 1821 and ratified its first Constitution in 1825. Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the country struggled between military dictatorships and democracy. Revolution broke out in 1948 and the National Liberation Party led by Jose Maria Figueres Ferrer prevailed. Soon after Costa Rica abolished the military and adopted a new Constitution.
Costa Rica is governed by the Constitution of 1949 (Constitución Politica de la República de Costa Rica). The Constitution established the separation of powers between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government. In 1989 the Constitution was amended to create a Constitutional branch within the Supreme Court of Costa Rica. This fourth chamber (Sala IV) has specific jurisdiction over matters that involve the Constitution and violation of constitutional rights. The reader can obtain more information about the Constitutional Court on its website.
The Executive branch is made up of the President of the Republic who is elected every four years through a general election. The presidency is won by popular vote. The President is both the Chief of State and the head of the government. There are two vice-presidents and twenty cabinet officers who are appointed by the President. Starting in 1969, the Constitution prohibited presidential re-election. In 2003 this prohibition was repealed by the Supreme Court and former Presidents may now run for re-election.
The Unicameral Legislative Assembly or Asamblea Legislativa holds fifty-seven seats. Members are elected by direct popular vote to serve four-year terms. The Legislature has two ordinary sessions (May 1-July 31 and September 1-November 30).
The Legislature has six permanent commissions which are responsible for evaluating proposed laws. The six permanent commissions are (1) Agricultural and Natural Resources, (2) Economic Affairs, (3) Government and Administration, (4) Budgeting and Taxation, (5) Judicial Affairs, (6) Social Affairs. You find out more about the Legislative Commissions on their web site.
In 1992 the Legislature passed Law No. 7319 which created the office of the Ombudsman (Defensoría de Los Habitantes). This is an independent office attached to the Legislature to whom they are accountable rather than to the Government in office. The office of the Ombudsman may take cases against the Government either on its own initiative or at the request of any third party. The services provided to the public are free of charge.
The Legislature has its own Library (Biblioteca de La Asamblea Legislativa) where users can obtain more information about the Legislative branch, statistical information and legislative documentation.
The Judicial Branch (Poder Judicial) of the Costa Rican government is made up of the Supreme Court, Appellate Courts and the Trial Courts, which are charged with the administration of justice. The administrative rules for the judicial branch are set forth in the Ley Organica del Poder Judicial.
The Supreme Court is divided into four Chambers as follows: Chamber I (Sala Primera) is presided over by seven magistrates and it has jurisdiction over all civil and administrative matters. Chamber II (Sala Segunda) is presided over by five magistrates and has appellate jurisdiction over civil matters including family law, estates and labor law. Chamber III (Sala Tercera) is presided over by five magistrates and hears only criminal appeals. Chamber IV (Sala Cuarta) has exclusive jurisdiction over all constitutional matters. Each of the Chambers of the Supreme Court has a web site to provide general information to the general public as follows:
Costa Rica is divided into seven Provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limon. Each of the provinces is in turn divided into Cantons (81) and each Canton is divided into Districts (470).
San Jose: 20 Cantons, Alajuela: 15 Cantons, Cartago: 8 Cantons, Heredia: 10 Cantons, Guanacaste: 11 Cantons, Puntarenas: 11 Cantons, Limon: 6 Cantons.
The Cantons are in turn divided into territorial areas headed by a Municipal government. There are 81 Municipal governments in Costa Rica. The names of all the Municipalities in Costa Rica are available from the Planning Office of the Costa Rican Government web site.
The Municipal Advisory Institute (Instituto de Fomento y Aseosoria Municipal -IFAM) is a centralized government unit that provides technical assistance, financing and institutional coordination for municipal governments. Their web page contains all relevant Municipal law and regulations and maps on the population and divisions of each municipal territory in Costa Rica. IFAM has also sponsored a web page where all the municipal governments within the province of San Jose may post their institutional information.
The Municipal government is administered by a Mayor (Alcalde) who is appointed by the Municipal Council (Consejo Municipal), who is elected by popular vote every four years and can be reelected.
The following Municipal governments have web pages that provide general information and regulations: Municipality of San Jose, which governs the metropolitan San Jose area which is the capital city of Costa Rica; Municipality of Belen; Municipality of Escazú; and the Municipality of Heredia
The Ministry of Justice operates the Costa Rican National Registry (Registro Nacional). The National Registry plays a vital role in the Costa Rican legal system because it is responsible for receiving and recording all documents that relate to real estate transactions, corporations, powers of attorney, trademarks, security interests and more. The organization of the National Registry is as follows:
The general public can search the database of the National Registry via the Internet for real property and vehicle registration information. The following link is the search page of the National Registry Internet site.
In Costa Rica there are national presidential and legislative elections every four years. The most recent elections were held in February of 2002, and in which eleven political parties participated. On the following site you can view the current list of legislators and their political affiliations.
The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) prevailed in the 2002 after a run off election. The results by political party were as follows:
Liberacion Nacional (PLN) 31.05%
Renovación Costarricense 1.07%
Integración Nacional 0.41%
Fuerza Democratica (FD) 0.27%
Coalición Cambio 2000 0.26%
Union General 0.17%
Patriotica Nacional 0.11%
Alianza Nacional Cristiana 0.08%
Rescate Nacional 0.06%
Independiente Obrero 0.05%
As a result of the 2002 elections no single party has the majority in the National Legislative Assembly. The 57 seats of the National Legislative Assembly were divided among five political parties as follows:
Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) 19
Liberación Nacional (PLN) 17
Partido Accion Ciudadana 8
Movimiento Libertario (ML) 5
Renovación Costarricense 1
Bloque Patriótico Parlamentario 1
Partido Auténtico Herediano 1
The next elections shall be held in February of 2006 and it will be the first time in thirty six years that a former President is allowed to run for office. Until 2003 the Costa Rica constitution prohibited former Presidents from being re-elected or running for office in the future. The following is the list of candidates running for President for the 2006 election:
Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) Ricardo Toledo
Liberación Nacional (PLN) Oscar Arias
Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) Otton Solís
Movimiento Libertario (ML) Otto Guevara
Renovación Costarricense Bolívar Serrano
Unión Patriótica José Miguel Corrales
Alianza Democrática Nacionalista José Miguel Villalobos
Unión para el Cambio Antonio Álvarez
Patria Primero Juan Jose Vargas
Union Nacional Jose Manuel Echandi
The primary source for electoral information in Costa Rica is the Supreme Elections Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones) which is in charge of registering political parties and administering elections.
The laws passed by the Costa Rican legislature are the primary source of law. Once a law has been approved by the Legislature it must be published in the official gazette known as La Gaceta. The record of all laws published by the Gazette may be searched via the internet at the site of the National Printing Office.
In addition to the laws passed by the legislature the Costa Rican government may issue regulations (Reglamento) to a specific law. Furthermore, the President and other government Ministries may issue Decrees (Decreto) regarding specific topics. Whether it is a law, a regulation or a decree all must be published in the official gazette before they become binding.
A record of all laws, executive decrees and regulations in existence in Costa Rica is available from the National Legislation System database (SINALEVI) where the user can search the database based upon different types of search criteria. The following link takes you to the search window for the database.
Many of the laws passed by the legislature are compiled into Codes each of which governs a particular area of the law. Costa Rica is a civil law system and as such is heavily influenced by the French (Napoleonic Code) system and the Spanish civil law system which established written codification of its laws, which are referred to as Codes. The codes can be viewed in their entirety through the National Legislation System database (SINALEVI) database or at the web site for the Office of the Attorney General (PGR). The bulk of Costa Rican law can be found in the following Codes.
· The Civil Code (Codigo Civil): Governs contracts, property, obligations, capacity of persons and succession.
· The Code of Civil Procedure (Codigo Procesal Civil): Defines the procedures required to litigate before the Costa Rican civil courts.
· The Commercial Code (Codigo de Comercio): Regulates commercial transactions, negotiable instruments, bankruptcy and corporate entities.
· The Labor Code (Codigo de Trabajo): Governs employer and employee relationship and obligations.
· The Family Code (Codigo de Familia): Sets forth the laws regarding marriage, divorce, paternity, guardianship and adoption.
· The Penal Code (Codigo Penal): Establishes the criminal offenses which are punishable by law.
· The Code of Criminal Procedure (Codigo Procesal Penal): Defines the procedures that are to be followed before the criminal courts.
Most of the legal Codes indicated above are also available in print form from Editorial Investigaciones Juridicas, S.A. or Editorial Juricentro, S.A., San José, Costa Ric.
All laws passed in Costa Rica can be found through the SINALEVI database described above or through the Legislative Assembly Law Directory, where they maintain on-line access to all laws by reference number from law No. 1 through 9000.
At the site of the Office of the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la Republica), through the Costa Rican Judicial Information network (Sistema Costarricense de Informacion Juridica -SCIJ), one can search for the full text of the laws based upon the specific area of the law. The following laws are specifically covered: Agrarian Laws, Administrative Laws, Environmental Law, Customs Laws, Civil Laws, Labor Laws, Immigration Laws, Municipal Laws, Criminal Laws, Family Laws, Constitutional Laws, Tax Laws, Commercial Laws, Elections Laws, Notary Laws, Mining Laws, Urban Planning Laws, Transit Law, Human Rights Laws, Banking Laws.
The decisions of the Costa Rican Supreme Court (Chambers I-IV) starting from 1980 are available through the Costa Rican System of Judicial Information (SCIJ). This database was developed due to a cooperation agreement between the Government of Costa Rica and the Inter American Development Bank which provided the funding for the project. Use of the database is free and the user may search for court decisions with the use of keywords.
Treaties play an important role in Costa Rican legislation, since Article 7 of the Costa Rican Constitution provides that treaties which have been ratified and approved by the National Legislature are superior to national law. All treaties are filed with the Treaty Assessment Office (Oficina Asesora de Tratados) of the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Relations. For more information on treaties you can visit the web site of the treaty office or the Ministry of Foreign Relations.
The Costa Rican government has done a good job of using the Internet to disseminate information to its citizens.
In Costa Rica there is one public law school, the University of Costa Rica School of Law, and sixteen private law schools. The Costa Rican Bar Association does not have a supervisory role in the law school curriculum and as such, the quality of law school education varies from school to school. The following are links to some public and private law schools in Costa Rica.
· Costa Rican Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados) - In order to practice law in Costa Rica one must be admitted as an Attorney to the Costa Rican Bar Association. A law library is available at the facilities of the Bar Association located in the capital city of San Jose (Zapote).
· National Notary Directorate (Direccion Nacional de Notariado) - In a civil law system such as Costa Rica the Notary Public plays an important function within the legal system. To be a Public Notary in Costa Rica you must be a licensed Attorney and authorized before the National Notary Directorate. The Directorate was created by the Notary Code (Codigo Notarial) in 1998 and is in charge of oversight and discipline of practicing Notaries.
· Costa Rican Institute of Notary Law (Instituto Costarricense de Derecho Notarial - ICODEN) - The Institute is an association of Costa Rican Notaries and its purpose is to improve the professionalism and knowledge of Notaries.
- The Francisco Echeverria Law Library (Biblioteca Francisco Echeverria) at the Costa Rican Bar Association.
· The Legal Guide to Costa Rica: Written in English, it is a summary of Costa Rican laws and procedures including general information on living and doing business in Costa Rican. The book also has sample forms translated into English. The 4th edition was published in 2005.