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Panama - Legal System
The powers of the Supreme Court include determining how laws and decrees made by the government fit into the constitution. Legal action that involves the actions of public officials, or those which involve a failure to act, are automatically heard by the Supreme Court. Once the Supreme Court has made a judgement there is no right to appeal, but appeals can be made from courts further down the chain.
In Panama there are three judicial districts. The provinces of Panama, Darien and Colon make up one district. Cocle, Herrera, Los Santos and Veraguas make up a second district, while the third consists of Bocas del Toro and Chiriqui. The district which includes Panama has 2 superior tribunals, the next stage down from the Supreme Court. The other two districts have just one each. Supreme Court judges appoint the judges for the tribunals.
Each individual province has two circuit courts. Civil cases and criminal cases each have their own circuit court. Below the circuit courts are the municipal courts, one for each of the 65 municipal areas of the country. The circuit court judges are appointed by those serving the Superior Tribunals, while municipal judges are appointed by the circuit court judges.
The work and behaviour of public officials is overseen by the Public Ministry, which is run by a number of other officials working in the law. The Public Ministry will also offer advice to ministers and government departments. There are several sections within the constitution which prevent the judiciary from being unfairly influenced by the government, although the effectiveness of this can be disputed. Judges are, however, exempt from arrest unless a warrant is issued from the judiciary level which is immediately above theirs. Judges cannot be sacked unless they have broken the law.
Minor cases which are heard in local courts are heard by ‘police’ judges. These have the power to issue a prison sentence of up to one year. These judges are appointed by the Municipal Mayors and serve a similar function as the UK Magistrate and the US Justice of the Peace. These cases are not subject to the strict procedures that are applied in other courts and those accused may find some of the procedures unfair, but these are not regulated so there is little that can be done.
All those who have been accused and charged with a crime have the right to legal representation. There are public defenders for those who do not have or cannot afford their own lawyer. Some cases are heard by a jury. Those who are arrested can have a lawyer present while they are being questioned by the police that can be arranged by the police if you need the assistance, as is the case in both the UK and the US.
Those who are awaiting trial are often placed on remand. In Panama there are few specific facilities for this and most prisoners will be placed in one of the tough prisons. The cities all have their own prison facilities, most of which are much tougher and basic than those in the UK. Prisoners have to work and rehabilitation is essential before they are released back into society.
Finding a lawyer to help you is relatively easy. The embassies of both the US and the UK have lists of lawyers who speak English so that if your Spanish skills are not adequate you can still be sure of good representation. Asking other expats for recommendations is also a good way of finding a reputable lawyer. If you do need representation with a specific court case then checking out a lawyer’s track record in that area is also a good idea.
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