Guide last updated by Alice Tyson, April 2022
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is a British Overseas Territory. The BVI is comprised of approximately 40 islands and cays, the largest of which is Tortola. The islands are internally self governing and operate as a parliamentary democracy.
The earliest recorded settlement of the Islands was by the Arawak Indians. The first recorded European sighting of the Virgin Islands was by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but there was no attempt to settle the Islands at this time.
In the seventeenth century the Dutch settled on the islands. In 1666 it was reported that a British party had expelled the Dutch settlers. There is some debate as to whether the the British acquired the territory by conquering or settling it and, if indeed acquired by settlement, what date is applicable. However, according to Harney Westwood & Riegels in British Virgin Islands Commercial Law (Thomson Reuters, 2018, para 1.050), "Most historical sources which subscribe to the "settlement" theory of the British Virgin Islands use the date of 1666 as the date of settlement." Sources which state the BVI to have been acquired by settlement include Halsbury's Laws of England, 5th ed, vol. 13 (2017), para 770 and Hendy and Dickson, British Overseas Territories Law (Hart Publishing, 2018). See also Dupont, The Common Law Abroad (Fred B. Rothman Publications, 2001).
For many years the BVI was governed as a part of the Leeward Islands federation. This grouping of Islands was known as the Caribee Leeward Islands Federation between 1671-1870, and as the Leeward Island Colony between 1871-1957. The Leeward Island Colony was subsequently abolished and ceased to exist from 1 July 1957. The Legislative Council of the BVI declined to join the new Federation of the West Indies in 1958.
The current constitution was introduced in 2007. As this is a statutory instrument passed at Westminster (The Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007, SI 2007/1678), it can be found in the numbered series of UK statutory instruments on the legislation.gov.uk website and is available from the Government of the Virgin Islands website. The Virgin Islands Constitution (Amendment) Order 2015 is also avalable to view on legislation.gov.uk.
Earlier constitutions were included the The Virgin Islands (Constitution) Order (SI 1976/2145) and the The Virgin Islands (Constitution) Order in Council (SI 1967/471).
Introduction to modern British Virgin Islands legislation
In the BVI, the House of Assembly of the British Virgin Islands (called the Legislative Council prior to the introduction of the 2007 constitution) has the power to pass statutes. The House of Assembly is unicameral and is made up of 15 members. Thirteen of the members are directly elected. The remaining two non-voting members are the Attorney General and the Speaker. Statutes must also be approved by the Governor (as the representative of the UK monarch).
As the BVI is a British Overseas Territory, legislation made in the UK Parliament can be applicable in the BVI. In such cases a statue may specifically state that it applies to the territory, or it may be extended to the BVI by way of an Order in Council or by direct subsidiary legislation in the UK. For information on finding UK legislation, see the United Kingdom jurisdiction guide.
British Virgin Islands legislation
A compilation of the laws passed 1961-1991 and still in force as of 1st May 1990 was published in 1991 under the title The Revised Laws of the Virgin Islands. This is available in IALS Library on the open shelves at classmark GN8.E.17. The 1991 edition updated the previous edition which was published in 1965 (IALS RES GN8.E.17).
Beyond 1990 it is necessary to look at the Acts and Statutory instruments and Imperial Legislation of the Virgin Islands (held at IALS 1990-2012 at GN8.E.18). Updating can be done using the annual index to check whether acts are still in force. The index is called The British Virgin Islands Consolidated Index of Statutes and Subsidiary Legislation and it is compiled by the Faculty of Law Library of the University of the West Indies, Barbados.
Current legislation is published in the Government of the Virgin Islands Official Gazette. Full online access to the Gazette requires a subscription.
An earlier compilation of British Virgin Island Ordinances 1857-1910 is available at RES FOL GN8.E.18.
Leeward Islands legislation
IALS has very good collections of Leeward Islands legislation. This includes the following:
Leeward Islands Laws [Acts] 1872-1927, RES FOL GN8.E.2 ; 1928-1956, GN8.E.2
Leeward Islands Laws [Federal Acts] 1871-1888, RES FOL GN8.E.1
Leeward Islands Laws [Rules, Regulations etc] 1904-1927 (incomplete) RES FOL GN8.E.4; 1928-1957 GN8.E.4
Tables and Indexes:
Tables of the Federal Statutes of the Leeward Islands 1871-1925, RES GN8.E.1
Leeward Islands Laws [Index to Subsidiary Legislation] 1942-1950, RES GN8.G.3
Introduction to the judicial system
The judicial system in the Virgin Islands is based on that of the U.K. The courts are organised at four levels.
The court of lowest jurisdiction is the Magistrates Court, which deals mainly with criminal matters, minor civil claims and some family law matters. The Magistrates Court also has limited jurisdiction in relation to salvage and wreck.
The superior court of record for the British Virgin Islands is the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. Commonly referred to as the High Court, its proper name is the Supreme Court. The Commercial Division of the Supreme Court sits in the BVI.
The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Magistrates Court and the Supreme Court.
Appeals from the Court of Appeal are to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which is the highest court of appeal for the BVI.
Sources of case law
Judgments of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court can be found on their website. BVI judgments from the High Court, Court of Appeal and the Privy Council are also available on the subscription database vLexJusits (vLexJusits is available at IALS Library via our Law Databases page).
Cases may also be found in the OECS Law Reports (IALS holds volumes 1-3 of this series, 1991-1995, classmark GN1.G.4). This series contains a selection of cases decided in the superior courts of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States going back to the 1950s.
Decisions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council are available on their website from 2009 onwards. Earlier decisions are available on BAILII. BAILII contains all decisions from 1996 and selected earlier decisions.
A selection of books available at IALS that contain information on the British Virgin Islands is listed below. For a full list, search the library catalogue.
The sections on the Leeward Islands and the British Virgin Islands in Dupont J, The Common Law Abroad: Constitutional and Legal Legacy of the British Empire (Fred B Rothman Publications 2001) give detailed information about the historical and legal development of the BVI.
IALS holds the Caribbean Law Bulletin between 1988-2002 at GN1.J.4. This journal contains articles relating to law of the Caribbean, including that of the BVI.
Journal articles may be found using databases available from the IALS Law Databases page, including Law Journal Library (part of HeinOnline), Westlaw, Lexis Library and the Index to Legal Periodicals.
The British Virgin Islands Financial Services Commission website includes select legislation relating to anti money laundering, business and companies, banking, insolvency, insurance and corporate affairs.
The Government of the Virgin Islands website has information about the executive, legislative and judicial branches, about government ministries and departments, and about the Virgin Islands Constitution.
The Government of the Virgin Islands Official Gazette website provides access to the official newspaper of the Virgin Islands. The Gazette contains a wide range of official, legal, commercial, and statutory notices, as well as official documents such as Bills, Acts, and Statutory Instruments. The Gazette is published once per week and remains available online in its entirety for two months (registration required). After two months a subscription is required to view content in the archived section of the site.