A Guide to Legal Research in Costa Rica

By Roger A. Petersen

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 Petersen & Philps of San Jose, Costa Rica.

Published March 2015

(Previous update on April 2010)

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I. Introduction to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a democratic republic that 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

Language: Spanish

Form of Government Democratic Republic

Area: The country has a territory of 51,000 km2

Literacy Rate: 96.3%

Life Expectancy 75.26 males and 80.65 Females

Official Religion Catholic

National Emblems Flower: Guaria Orchid. Tree: Guanacaste Tree. Bird: Yiguirro

II. A Brief History

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.

III. The Constitution of Costa Rica

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.

IV. The Structure of Government

The National Government

1. Executive Branch

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 although not consecutively.

2. Legislative Branch

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).

i. The Legislative Commissions

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. In addition they also have fifteen permanent special commissions as follows: (1) Environmental, (2) Municipal Affairs, (3) Science and Technology, (4) Youth and Adolescence, (5) Tourism, (6) Constitutional Issues, (7) Public Expenditure, (8) Women’s Affairs, (9) Human Rights, (10) Honors, (11) Books and Documents, (12) Naming Commission; (13) Drafting, (14) International Relations and Commercial Relations, (15) Security and Narcotrafficking. You can find out more about the Legislative Commissions on their web site.

ii. The Ombudsman (Defensoría de Los Habitantes)

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.

3. Judicial Branch

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 or search case law as follows:

B. The Local Government

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. You can see the complete Political Subdivision of Costa Rica by clicking on this link: The Political Subdivision of Costa Rica

The names and contact information for many of the Municipalities in Costa Rica are available at the Municipal Government Directory. You can also view additional information about local Municipal governments from the Planning Office of the Costa Rican Government web site (MidePlan). At the same site you can locate information on the budget and population of various local governments.

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.

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 six 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. The next three largest cities of Costa Rica are Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago and you can access their local government web pages here: Municipality of Alajuela; Municipality of Heredia; Municipality of Cartago; Other Municipal governments that have web sites include:

1. In the Province of San José: Municipality of Belen; Municipality of Escazú; Municipality of Curridabat; Municipality of Montes de Oca; Municipality of Santa Ana; Municipalidad de Desamparados; Municipalidad de Alajuelita; Municpalidad de Moravia.

2. Province of Alajuela: Municipality of San Ramon; Municipality of San Carlos; Municipalidad de Naranjo; Municipalidad de Grecia

3. Province of Cartago: Municipalidad de Paraiso;

4. Province of Heredia: Municipalidad de Barva; Municipalidad de Santa Barbara; Municipalidad de Santo Domingo; Municipality of Sarapiqui

5. Province of Guancaste: Municipalidad de Liberia; Municipalidad de Santa Cruz; Municipalidad de Cañas; Municipalidad de Tilaran;

6. Province of Puntarenas: Municipalidad de Cobano; Municipalidad de Esparza; Municipalidad de Osa; Municipalidad de Garabito; Municipalidad de Buenos Aires;

7. Province of Limon: Municipalidad de Siquirres; Municipalidad de Pococi.

C. The National Registry System

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. If you want to search for information related to real property, vehicles, survey maps and more you can do so at the search page of the National Registry. The registry system provides basic free searches but you can also pay with a credit card for online certifications. To use the system you need to register on the site with your e-mail. You can watch a video on how to register and use the system. The National Registry is also the depository for corporate records and you can search the corporations search page after registration as well.

D. Political Parties and Elections

In Costa Rica there are national presidential and legislative elections every four years.

The most recent elections were held in February of 2014, which resulted in a runoff election between the National Liberation candidate Johnny Araya and the candidate for the Citizens Action Party (PAC) Luis Guillermo Solis. In the runoff election held in April of 2014 Luis Guillermo Solis prevailed with 77.77% of the vote. This is the first time that the Citizens Action Party (PAC) holds the presidency of Costa Rica.

The results of election political party were as follows:

Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) 30.64% [77.7% in the 2nd runoff]

Liberación Nacional (PLN) 29.17% [22.23% in the 2nd runoff]

Frente Amplio (FA) 17.25%

Movimiento Libertario (ML) 11.34%

Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) 6.02%

Patria Nueva (PN) 1.50%

You can view the complete Presidential elections information and breakdown in detail at the web site of the Costa Rican Elections Committees (Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones).

During the 2014 elections the electorate split the vote between President and the Congressional seats. The electorate gave the presidency to the Citizens Action Party but allowed the National Liberation Party to retain a good percentage of the congressional seats. Another surprise was the rise of the Frente Amplio political party which went from having one congressional seat to nine in this past election. As a result of the 2014 election the 57 seats of the National Legislative Assembly were divided among eight political parties as follows:

Liberación Nacional (PLN) 18

Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) 13

Frente Amplio 9

Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) 8

Movimiento Libertario (ML) 4

Renovación Costarricense 2

Partido Accesibilidad Sin Exclusion 1

Partido Alianza Deomocratica Cristiana 1

Restauración Nacional 1

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.

A. Legislation

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 are 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.

B. The Codes

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 Costa Rican Judicial Information System (Sistema Costarricense de Información Juridica / SCIJ).

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 Rica.

C. General Laws

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.

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, and Banking Laws.

D. Case Law

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. Another great source for case law is the Index of the Costa Rican Judicial Branch where you can search case law from several courts in Costa Rica. The system also allows public access by case number to the status of civil proceedings active in the Costa Rican court system.

E. International Treaties

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.

A. Government Internet Sites

The Costa Rican government has done a good job of using the Internet to disseminate information to its citizens.

1. Office of the President

The official web site of the President of Costa Rica now includes video clips and audio of selected speeches and presentations.

2. Ministers

3. Other Government Sites

B. Costa Rican Law Schools

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 the oversight and regulation of the Notary system in Costa Rica.
  • The Notary Institute (ICODEN). The Institute is an association of Costa Rican Notaries and its purpose is to improve the professionalism and knowledge of Notaries.

D. Other Professional Licensing Associations

In order to carry out your profession in Costa Rica and depending on the field of work may require a license or membership to a professional association in Costa Rica. The following is the list of Costa Rican professional associations known locally as Colegios:

E. Libraries

1. Law Libraries

2. General Libraries

F. Newspapers

G. Texts and Magazines


  • 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 Rica. The book also has sample forms translated into English. The 6h edition was published in 2014.
  • The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica, by Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz
  • Expolibro, S.A. is a legal bookstore in Costa Rica that carries printed material on Costa Rican law.
  • Manual de Derecho Sucesorio (Probate Manual) Francisco Luis Vargas Soto published by Juricentro, S.A. 2010.
  • Derecho Penal (criminal law) Jose Alberto Rojas Chacon published by Juricentro, S.A. 2009.
  • Manual de Derecho Notarial, (Notary Manual) Herman Mora Vargas published by Investigaciones Jurídicas, S.A. 1999.
  • Codigo Civil de Costa Rica y Juridprudencia. Editorial Juridica Continental, 2012.
  • El Arbitraje en el Derecho Costarricense (Arbitration Laws in Costa Rica), Sergio Artavia Barrantes, Published by Editorial Dupas, 2000.
  • Tratado de los Bienes (Analysis of Costa Rican Civil Law as it relates to property), Alberto Brenes Córdoba, Editorial Juricentro, S.A., 1981


VII. Sources of General Information