You are here: Home E-Guide to Real Estate in Costa Rica Chapter 11 - Legal Matters Napoleonic Code v. Common Law

Napoleonic Code v. Common Law

The main theoretical difference between the Costa Rican and certain developed-world legal systems goes back to the 19th century and the ideas of a short French conqueror. The eponymous Napoleonic Code that he created is considered one of the first codifications of European law and is based on the principle that law should be clearly-written, specific, and accessible to all. Many countries of the world – Latin American countries among them – later adopted the principles of the Napoleonic Code in their own legal systems.

Legal systems founded on the Napoleonic Code differ from the Common Law system found (particularly) in anglo-influenced countries. Common Law judges base their decisions on precedent of past decisions and, to a certain extent, common sense as understood at the time of the decision. In legal systems based on Napoleonic Code, however, judges are supposed to rule based on the legal code, and that’s all. Precedent can be used as a reference, but it is in no way binding. Practically, in the Costa Rican system, this means that, for one thing, a case’s outcome cannot be predicted based on previous judicial decisions with the same set of circumstances. It is very common for research on jurisprudence in Costa Rica to turn up cases with nearly identical circumstances but opposite results. There are no jury trials, and a decision depends entirely on how a judge (or panel of judges) decides to interpret the written law that is being applied.

This emphasis on written code also affects how property title is determined. In a Common Law system, title is determined through deeds, that being a registry of people who have transferred the use of property, not necessarily a document that declares ownership. In a system based on the Napoleonic Code, however, land title is determined exclusively on the contents of a property registry, known in Costa Rica’s case as the Registro Nacional, or National Registry. Legally, if a property is inscribed under your name in the National Registry, you own it. If it is inscribed under someone else’s name, they own it. This used to cause some real messes when it came to fraud, as stolen properties or properties sold twice were the legal property of the person who bought them from the thief, as long as they were bought and registered in good faith. As the Costa Rican system has evolved, however, more recent legal interpretations place responsibility on the State and its failure to properly manage the National Registry. Now, the original owner of the property has first claim to it once a criminal case determines that the sale was fraudulent, and the good-faith buyer is left holding the bag. Another reason to do thorough due diligence.

As in a Common Law system, an adversarial court proceeding falls under one of two basic definitions: criminal and civil. Criminal proceedings seek redress from the State in the form of jail time, fines, community service, etc. Civil proceedings seek compensation.