Jamaica, like Britain and her former colonies, operates under a Common Law legal system. This means that the law is developed based on the decisions of previous cases, or precedent. The guiding idea behind common law is that it is unfair to treat similar cases differently.
Jamaica also has Statuary laws, or legislation, which are a fixed set of rules passed by the other 2 branches of government, Parliament (the Legislature) and the Prime Minister (the Executive). These laws have their own courts, which are discussed below in “The Courts.”
Other legal systems currently used in the world are Civic and Religious Law. Civic Law (practiced across mainland Europe and its former colonies) is based chiefly on a set of rules like the Napoleonic or Roman codes of law; and Religious Law (practiced mostly in Middle Eastern countries) whose most popular form is Sharia Law that is based on the teachings of the Islamic faith.
There are five levels of court in the Jamaican legal system. The lower two levels were created by statutes passed by the Jamaican Parliament and they use statutes, not precedent, to try minor cases. Petty Sessions, presided over by Justices of the Peace (JPs), is the lower of these two levels. Petty Sessions, which require two JPs to be present, deal with minor cases.
Above the Petty Sessions is the Resident Magistrates Court. On the same level as the RM Court are the specialized courts: Traffic, Gun, Drug, Coroner’s, Night, Tax, Family, Juvenile, and Small Claims Courts. The Supreme Court is the third level of court on the island, and the first that abides by the Common Law Legal System. The Chief Justice of the island presides over the Supreme Court, which is composed of Puisne (pew-nee) Judges. This is the first court that hears serious cases like rape, murder, treason, and any case involving a sum of more than J$250,000.
The Court of Appeal hears appeals from both the Resident Magistrate’s Court (and other statuary courts) and Supreme Court. It is the most superior court in Jamaica. Under exceptional circumstances, a Jamaican case may be appealed even further than the Court of Appeals. Such circumstances would see the case appear before Her Majesty’s Privy Council in England. The Caribbean Court of Justice, should it be widely accepted, would replace the Privy Council as the region’s highest court.
More information on the role of lawyers and Prime Ministers is on the next page.