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The Jamaican Legal System is known as a “Common Law” system. The Common Law system is one of the three major types of legal systems in the world. The other two are Civil Law (based on Codes) and Religious Law (based on Religious Texts). Some legal systems involve a combination of two or in a few instances all three of these types.
The Common Law System originated in England and in its earliest form was based on societal customs and norms recognised and enforced by the judgments and decrees of the courts. Over time, used in a broad sense, the term “Common Law” came to include these early customs as well as legislative enactments and the judicial decisions interpreting their application. The Common Law system became therefore the law (custom, statutes and judicial decisions) common to all of England. Jamaica, as does the rest of the Commonwealth Caribbean, has a Common Law legal system inherited from England.
In the Common Law system court decisions are heavily reliant on prior judicial pronouncements. Where a statute governs the dispute, judicial interpretation of that statute determines how the law applies. Under the doctrine of Stare Decisis (latin for “let the decision stand”) courts in our Common Law system are obliged to follow the decisions and rulings in previously decided cases, or precedents, where the facts and issues are substantially the same. In Jamaica therefore, a court's decision is binding authority for similar cases decided by the same court or by lower courts within the Court Structure. The decision is not binding on courts of higher rank but it may be considered as persuasive authority. Decisions from courts outside of Jamaica are not binding, but may also be referred to as persuasive authority if there is no local case which has settled the point in issue
Cases that come before the courts deal with myriad everyday situations. Additionally, disputes involving new discoveries, technologies, social changes or global developments, often raise novel legal issues which are previously undetermined in Jamaica, and for which no binding precedent exists. Our Common Law system allows our judges to look to other jurisdictions or to draw upon past or present judicial experience for analogies, to help in making decisions in those situations. This flexibility enables the courts to address new situations so that no worthy litigant is left without a remedy. At the same time the doctrine of stare decisis provides certainty, uniformity, and predictability which promotes a stable legal environment.
In the Common Law system, disputes are settled through an adversarial exchange of evidence and argument. Opposing parties present their cases before a neutral fact finder. Depending on the type of case, the fact finder may be either a jury or a judge. Where a Judge sits with a jury, the jury are the fact finders. Where the Judge sits alone, the judge has the dual responsibility of determining the appropriate law to apply, as well as the facts proved. Where the Judge sits with a jury, the Judge directs the jury on the relevant law to be applied to the facts the jury finds proved. The jury or the judge, as the case may be, evaluates the evidence, applies the appropriate law to the facts, and thereby arrives at a decision. Following the decision, the party against whom the decision is made, (with the exception of the prosecution in a criminal case on a verdict of acquittal), may appeal the decision to a higher court.
Under our Common Law system, all citizens of whatever rank or status are subject to the same set of laws, and the exercise of governmental power is limited by those laws. The Supreme Court is empowered to review legislation, but only to determine whether it conforms to constitutional requirements.