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The Government, which is based on the French Civil code and not the English legal system, has Four Branches:

  1. Judicial – Court system
  2. Executive – President and cabinet ministers
  3. Legislative – Elected members
  4. 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 are Three Levels of Courts:

  1. District Courts
  2. Appellate Courts
  3. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has Four Chambers;

  1. Commercial and civil law
  2. Administrative and labor law
  3. Criminal law
  4. Constitutional law – 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.

All attorneys must be members of the "Colegio de Abogados" or Bar Association.

Notaries who are empowered to take affidavits and dispositions as well as witness and certify the validity of documents must be attorneys as well as being notaries. They must be registered with the Dirección National de Notariado, a part of the court system.

Rights Against an Attorney

While Costa Rica has many good attorneys, there are also dishonest attorneys in the system. If you are cheated by an attorney, you do have some recourse. Complaints against an attorney who has violated the code of ethics of the Colegio de Abogados can be filed with the Colegio. The Inspector's office will then investigate the complaint and may call a conciliation meeting to see if a 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 the appropriate 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 similar to a criminal case with prosecutors from the notary court. The complainant then becomes a civil party to the action as well as a victim. If the notary is found guilty, compensatory and punitive damages are awarded. There is a fund which all notaries must pay into to supply them with a fidelity bond. The fund will only pay up to the amount that the notary has paid into it. As such a new attorney may have very little funds available. If funds are paid out on behalf of a notary, the notary is suspended until the funds are replaced.

In 1998 the regulations were change 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 an attorney consult with reputable sources with considerable legal experience in Costa Rica. There are almost 16,000 attorneys in Costa Rica. Of those, 50% were licensed in the past 8 years and may have limited experience. Choose your attorney with great care. Whenever possible, choose a specialist in the area where you need legal assistance.


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