Features – A Guide to Legal Research in Costa Rica


Roger A. Petersen is an Attorney at Law, and a member of both the Costa Rican Bar and Florida Bar. Mr. Petersen is the author of The Legal Guide to Costa Rica and a partner with Alliance Law Group of San Jose, Costa Rica. Research assistance for this guide was provided by Amanda Nixon, who has a Bachelors Degree in Business/Finance from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Costa Rica

A Brief History

The Constitution

The Structure of Government

The National Government
The Executive Branch

The Legislative Branch

The Judicial Branch
Local Government

The National Registry

Political Parties and Elections

Costa Rica Primary Legal Resources



General Laws

Case Law

International Treaties

Secondary Legal Resources

Government Internet Sites
Other Government Sites
Costa Rica Law Schools
Costa Rican Bar and Legal Associations
Law Libraries
Texts and Magazines
Sources of General Information

I. Introduction to Costa Rica

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

Country Population Approximately 3.8 million people

Language: Spanish

Form of Government Democratic Republic

Currency: Costa Rican Colon – View exchange rate at www.bccr.fi.cr

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

Literacy Rate: 94.8%

Life Expectancy 73.49 males and 76.68 Females

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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 at www.poder-judicial.go.cr/salaconstitucional/.

IV. The Structure of Government

A. 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.

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.

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.

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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 divisions as follows: Chamber I (Sala Primera) is presided 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.

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

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 Municipality is governed by a Mayor (Alcalde) who is appointed by the Municipal Council (Consejo Municipal) who are elected by popular vote.

The Municipality of San Jose governs the metropolitan San Jose area which is the capital city of Costa Rica.

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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 for real property and vehicle registration information. Search the National Registry.

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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 2002 where eleven political parties participated. The two main political parties the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the National Liberation Party (PLN) where challenged by a new political party that was formed only one year ago, the Citizen Action Party (PAC). The Social Christian Unity Party won the 2002 presidential election in a run off election. The results by party were as follows:

Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) 38.58%

Liberacion Nacional (PLN) 31.05%

Partido Accion Ciudadana (PAC) 26.19%

Moviemiento Libertario (ML) 1.69%

Renovación Costarricense 1.07%

Integración Nacional .41%

Fuerza Democratica (FD) .27%

Coalición Cambio 2000 .26%

Union General .17%

Patriotica Nacional .11%

Alianza Nacional Cristiana .08%

Rescate Nacional .06%

Independiente Obrero .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) 29.78%

Liberación Nacional (PLN) 27.1 %

Partido Accion Ciudadana 21.96%

Movimiento Libertario (ML) 9.34%

Renovación Costarricense 3.59%

The source for electoral information is the Supreme Elections Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones) which is in charge of registering political parties and administering elections.

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V. Costa Rica Primary Legal Resources


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 which is http://imprenal.go.cr

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.

A. 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 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.

1. The Civil Code: Governs contracts, property, obligations, capacity of persons and succession.

2. The Code of Civil Procedure: Defines the procedures required to litigate before the Costa Rican civil courts.

3. The Commercial Code: Regulates commercial transactions, negotiable instruments, bankruptcy and corporate entities.

4. The Labor Code: Governs employer and employee relationship and obligations.

5. The Family Code: Sets forth the laws regarding marriage, divorce, paternity, guardianship and adoption.

6. The Penal Code: Establishes the criminal offenses which are punishable by law.

7. The Code of Criminal Procedure: Defines the procedures that are to be followed before the criminal courts.

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B. General Laws

All laws passed in Costa Rica can be found through the SINALEVI database described above or through the Legislative Assembly Laws Directory where they maintain online access to all laws by reference number, from law No. 1 through 9000. At the site of the Office of the Attorney General (Procuduría General de la Republica), one can search for the full text of the laws based upon the specific area of the law as follows:

Agrarian Law

Administrative Law

Environmental Law

Customs Law

Civil Law

Labor Law

Immigration Law

Municipal Law

Criminal Law

C. Case Law

The decisions of the Costa Rican Supreme Court (Chambers 1-IV) starting from 1980, are available through the Costa Rican System of Judicial Information (SCIJ). This database was developed due to a cooperative agreement between the Government of Costa Rica and the Interamerican 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.

D. 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.

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VI. Secondary Legal Resources

A. Government Internet Sites

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

1. Ministers

Ministry of Economic Industry & Commerce: www.meic.go.cr

Ministry of Foreign Affairs: www.rree.go.cr

Ministry of Public Security: www.msp.go.cr

Ministry of National Planning & Economic Policy: www.mideplan.go.cr

Ministry of Agriculture: www.mag.go.cr

Ministry of Science and Technology: www.micit.go.cr

Ministry of Public Works: www.mopt.go.cr

Ministry of Health: www.netsalud.sa.cr

Ministry of Education: www.mep.go.cr

Ministry of Justice: www.poder-judicial.go.cr

Ministry of the Treasury: www.hacienda.go.cr

Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports: www.mcjdcr.go.cr

2. Other Government Sites

Comptroller General: www.cgr.go.cr

Office of the Attorney General: www.pgr.go.cr

Bank and Financial Institution Regulators (SUGEF): www.sugef.go.cr

Securities Regulation Office (SUGEVAL): www.sugeval.fi.cr

Available in English at http://www.sugeval.fi.cr/ing/index.html

Costa Rican Institute of Tourism: www.tourism-costarica.com (in English)

National Insurance Institute: www.ins.go.cr

Social Security Administration (CCSS) www.info.ccss.sa.cr

National Emergency Comission: www.cne.go.cr

Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE): www.ice.co.cr

Central Bank of Costa Rica: www.bccr.fi.cr/flat/bccr_flat.htm

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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.

Universidad de Costa Rica – Facultad de Derecho

Universidad Autonoma de Centro America (U.A.C.A.)

Universidad Escuela Libre de Derecho (Ulibre)

Universidad Latina de Costa Rica

Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Technologia (ULACIT)

Universidad La Salle (Ulasalle)

C. Costa Rican Bar and Legal Associations

1. The 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).

2. 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, Helvetica, sans serif) in 1998 and is in charge of oversight and discipline of practicing Notaries.

3. The Costa Rican Institute of Notary Law (Instituto Costarricense de Derecho NotArial, Helvetica, sans serif – ICODEN

The Institute is an association of Costa Rican Notaries and its purpose is to improve the professionalism and knowledge of Notaries.

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D. Law Libraries

1. The University of Costa Rica. The University of Costa Rica has an extensive collection on Costa Rican Law. The catalog of the University library may be searched via the internet at http://compu10.bldt.ucr.ac.cr/cgi-bin/w207.bat

2. The Fernando Coto Albán Judicial Library is located in the first floor of the Costa Rican Supreme Court.

3. The Library of the National Assembly (Biblioteca de la Asamblea Legislativa) also has a vast collection of legal material.

E. Newspapers

The Tico Times : The English language newspaper in Costa Rica.

La Nación and La Republica are two of the largest daily circulation newspapers.

F. Texts and Magazines

The Legal Guide to Costa Rica: Written in English it is a summary of Costa Rican law and procedures.

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.

Ivstitia, a legal magazine published by Publicaciones Juridico Economicas, provides law review style commentaries and case notes on Costa Rican legal issues.

Criminal Practice (Ciencias Penales): Published by the Association of Criminal Attorneys of Costa Rica.

Revista Judicial: This is the official publication of the Costa Rican Judicial Branch which is published quarterly and it includes summaries of published court opinions.

VII. Sources of General Information

Costa Rica Legal Net: Legal information in English

U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica: Information on Costa Rica

Costa Rica Embassy in United States: Consular Services

The CIA Factbook on Costa Rica

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Posted in: Features, International Legal Research