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Understanding Puerto Rico’s court system

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Puerto Rico is very close to the United States geographically, but to many, even the many Puerto Ricans who call New York City home, the legal system can seem to exist on another planet. In actual fact, Puerto Rico has a legal system that is very similar to court systems in any of the 50 states. Understanding the differences and similarities can help in deciding whether to commence a law suit in Puerto Rico.

Overview: Two court systems

Like all of the 50 states, Puerto Rico has a dual court system. The island is home to its own court system in which Spanish is the official written and spoken language. The island also is subject to the federal district court for the District of Puerto Rico. In federal court, English is the official written and spoken language. Most people who have business with the courts, especially attorneys, are bilingual, but the two court systems still provide bountiful employment opportunities for translators.

How are the two systems different?

The languages spoken in each court system provide an obvious difference, but more subtle differences exist. The commonwealth court system is the court of original jurisdiction for virtually all types of lawsuits. The commonwealth court is divided into thirteen districts, and each district is administered by a regional presiding judge.

The federal court is a single district with its headquarters in San Juan. Like all federal district courts in the continental United States, the Puerto Rico District Court is run by a chief judge and a clerk of court.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two systems is what lawyers call “case law research.” The commonwealth courts print their opinions in Spanish, whereas the federal court decisions become part of the Federal Reporter system and are printed in English. Both sets of case reports are available in printed form and on the internet.

Does a litigant need a Spanish-speaking attorney?

Most attorneys who appear in Puerto Rican courts, especially commonwealth courts, are bilingual. Also, a non-Spanish speaking attorney from the mainland can easily retain a bilingual lawyer as local counsel. Most commercial lawsuits are filed in the U.S. District Court in San Juan, and because English is the official court language, attorneys from the mainland are able to appear on behalf of both Puerto Rican and continental clients with no language problems.