Chapter 6: Government and Law in Costa Rica posted by on July 4, 2012
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here are 3 levels of government in Costa Rica,  the national government, the provincial government (which has become almost non existent with the elimination of the provincial governors some years back), and the municipal, or cantonal government.


The municipal governments do most of the mundane local tasks, such as garbage collection, property tax registry and collection, issuing of business licenses, etc.


Most people don’t realize it, but cantons vary quite a bit in how they treat businesses.  Some have governments that are somewhat hostile to gringos.  Supposedly Alajuela is one of those.  Others have a more friendly business atmosphere, like Escazu,Santa Ana, and some are downright inviting because they are in a rural or depressed area.  Puriscal comes to mind here.


Many of the multinational corporations here elect to locate in a Free Trade Zone, which means they are not under the jurisdiction of the local canton, which can sometimes be a real blessing.


The national government as 4 branches, the Executive, headed by the President with 2 vice presidents, the legislature, which is a one house body, the judicial, and the Supreme Elections Tribunal, which is its own branch and runs the country on election day, monitors and organizes elections, issues Costa Rican citizenships and cedulas, registers marriages, etc.  This branch runs the Civil Registry.


Presidents and deputies in the legislature can only serve on consecutive term.  These term limits mean that there are no “career legislators,” because after 4 years they have to go back to work in the real world.  Maybe other countries should try this idea.


The Executive Branch has many ministries, but the one most commonly run into by tourists is the ICT, which is the tourism institute.  They are responsible for monitoring hotels and other businesses that serve tourists, as well as performing other functions.


Of course, most expats have lots of experience with the Immigration department.  The new administration has made great efforts to streamline this agency’s operations, and it seems to be succeeding, which was a huge task considering the mess left by the previous administration.


The courts operate according to the Napoleonic Code, which works somewhat differently from that of theUSand other English speaking countries.  One big difference is that there are no juries for criminal or any other kind of trial, but each trial is presided over by a 3 judge panel called a Tribunal.  The judges here the case, examine the documents submitted, and issue their ruling after due deliberation.  There is a greater reliance on document submission rather than oral testimony in court cases here.


Another quirk of this system is that a suspect is arrested FIRST, and then either released on bail, having to sign in every 15 days, or is put into preventative detention.  After the arrest, THEN the investigation begins in earnest, which is the opposite way from how things are done in theUSorUK.  This system can be very bad for the defendant, as detention can drag on for YEARS before the case is ever brought to trial.


Both civil and criminal cases take YEARS to get to their court dates, and the clogged legal system here seems to be getting slower instead of faster.


The Judicial Branch oversees the prosecutor’s office (fiscal, in Spanish) and its investigative arm, the OIJ, which is similar in concept to the US FBI.  The police agency run by the Executive Branch is th Ministerio Publico.  Each canton also has their local police.  So you have 3 different main types of police operating in this country, each with its defined duties.


The Supreme Court of Costa Rica is called the Sala IV, which is the constitutional court.  This court acts as a check and balance on other parts of government, to make sure they follow the constitution.


We could go on and on cataloguing various government agencies or bureaus, but this gives you an idea of some of the main branches and functions.


One final word, you need to be really careful here not to get involved in a lawsuit.  If someone sues you they cn ask the court to take away your passport, which means you can be stuck in this country until your case goes to court, which could be as long as 7 years from the start of the process.


Another problem I will caution you on is if you married but get a divorce and have kids from that marriage, the X wife can appeal to the court, and they will send the police out to take your passport and bar you from leaving the country unless you put up  ridiculous amount of alimony and child support payments to the court in advance.


One other word of caution for business owners, is that you need to make sure you are using a good lawyer to set up your business affairs, as there are many different things you need to do with different levels of government, and you want to make sure you have everything under control so that your buisness is operating within the law.


If you want a recommendation to good lawyers or other professionals, please fill out the form on our contact page and we will get back to you within 24 hours M-F.


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