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Jamaica: IALS Library Guides

An introduction to legal research in the jurisdiction of Jamaica

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Last updated:

Alice Tyson, April 2019

About the author

This guide was created by Adam Woellhaf, former Document Supply Services Supervisor at IALS Library.

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Introduction, history and legal system

Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean and the largest in the Anglophone Caribbean. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in in 1494, colonisation began in 1509 with Spanish settlers. By 1665 there were noe of the native Arawak population remained due to a mixture of disease and enforced resettlement. Tthe English captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and it was formally ceded to England in 1670.

In 1661, the first proclamations were issued declaring English law in force, but how early English law applied in Jamaica is historically a vexed issue: for over two centuries, the English courts were unable to answer whether Jamaica was "settled", whereby English law as of 1661 is enforced, or “conquered”, which requires the British government to declare the particular date on which English law is in force (following independence, these questions are of an historical interest, and it is now convention to assume that English law was brought to Jamaica in 1661).

Jamaica remained a colony of the British Empire until 1962, when it gained independence from the United Kingdom, but with the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, remaining head of state, making Jamaica an independent Commonwealth Realm.

Here is a brief timeline summarising Jamaican history:

1494 – Christopher Columbus lands on the island.

1509 – First Spanish settlement established. Never a fully integrated colony, but organised around slave-based plantations.

1510 – Arrival of a settlement of Jews, originating from France, Spain and Portugal.

1655 – Oliver Cromwell launches a military expedition from London.

1661 – Proclamations declaring English law in force, although this remained ambiguous with various wranglings up until 1724.

1666 – Jamaican constitution.

1670 – The Treaty of Madrid confirms the British conquest.

1833 – The UK Parliament enforces the abolition of slavery, the basis of the Jamaican economy of sugar plantations.

1866 – Jamaica constituted as a Crown Colony, subsumed within the British Crown, after the legislature renounces its powers.

1884 – Order-in-Council reintroduces an elected element into the Legislative Council, which was previously appointed. Its powers remain advisory.

1944 – A new constitution, further emphasizing representative government.

1953 – A new constitution, edging towards more independence.

1958 – Joins the West Indies Federation along with 11 other Caribbean nations.

1959 – A new constitution, this time as part of the West Indies Federation.

1961 – After a referendum, Jamaica leaves the Federation, precipitating its ultimate demise in 1962.

1962 – On 6 August, Jamaica gains political independence from the UK, remaining a member and realm of the Commonwealth of Nations, with the Queen as head of state.

With its origins as a British colony, Jamaica maintains a Common Law tradition, with a government based on the Westminster model. The government is made of up of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Like in the UK, members of the executive are drawn from both houses of the legislature – a bicameral Parliament comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Prime Minister is drawn from the House (usually the leader of the largest party), and leads a cabinet government, with ministers drawn from both chambers.

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The judiciary and administration of justice

The Jamaican judiciary is based on the English Common law tradition, whereby lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts, and courts bound by their own earlier decisions, unless overruled in a different case.

The Jamaican courts comprise a five-level hierarchy, in ascending order:

1.     Petty Session Courts – presided over by Justices of the Peace (JPs), and involve offences such as common assault and disorderly behaviour.

2.     The Resident Magistrates Court – each of the 14 parishes of Jamaica has an established court, and both civil and criminal cases are heard. There are specialised courts depending on the case being heard:

a.     Family Court

b.     Coroners’ Court

c.     Juvenile Court

d.     Traffic Court

e.     Night Court

f.      Tax Court

g.     Small Claims Court

h.     Drug Court 

Appeals are heard in the Court of Appeal.

3.     The Supreme Court – the superior court in Admiralty, Family, Civil, Commercial, Criminal, Family and Succession cases. Has both appellate and original jurisdiction. Appeals go to the Court of Appeal.

4.     The Court of Appeal – established by the constitution of 1962. Can confirm, vary or overturn previous decisions of the magistrate courts or the Supreme Court.

5.     The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) – hears appeals from the Court of Appeal. As a Commonwealth Realm, the JCPC remains the final court of appeal in Jamaica, and sits in the UK. Only matters which are considered of a very high public importance are heard here.

The Caribbean Court of Justice

There have been signs that the Caribbean Court of Justice, the highest judicial body of CARICOM, may replace the JCPC as the final court of appeal, but as of 2019, this has not happened.


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The IALS library has an extensive collection of Jamaican legislation going back to the 17th Century, including both colonial and postcolonial material.

Since 1973, the Laws of Jamaica have been published as a looseleaf work, currently comprising 29 volumes. This is regularly updated (last update 2012) and can be found at GN7.E.1. Volume 29 contains the Jamaica Constitution Order in Council 1962, the Jamaica Independence Act and the West Indies Act. Older bound volume revisions from 1938 (7 volumes) and 1953 (9 volumes) can be found in the reserve collection.

The library also has subsidiary legislation on the open shelves from 1979 onwards. Older material is kept in the reserve collection. The officially published loose orders from the Jamaican Gazette are shelved at GN7.E.4. The revised series is a 16 volume looseleaf work shelved at GN7.E.3.

Annual volumes published by authority are available from 1887-2006, with the years 1972-2006 shelved on open access at GN7.E.2. Older volumes are in the reserve collection.

The library also has a number of collections of historic legislation from the colonial era. These comprise a mix of acts, proclamations, rules, regulations and orders, the oldest dating from 1681. They can mostly be found in the reserve collection. In the round, these contain an arguably complete collection of the evolution of Jamaican legislation:

Acts of Assembly, including volumes from 1681-1783, RES FOL GN7.E.1

The laws of Jamaica passed by the assembly, 1683-1684 RES GN7.E.1

Statutes and laws of the Island of Jamaica, 1681-1888, RES FOL GN7.E.1

Laws of Jamaica : passed by the Governors, Council and Assembly in that Island and confirmed by the Crown, 1715, RES GN7.E.1

The Jamaica Gazette: Emergency powers, 1941-1955, RES FOL GN7.E.3

Rules, regulations and orders, 1925-1940, RES GN7.E.4

Proclamations, rules and regulations, 1941-1978, RES GN7.E.4 (from 1979-1990 on the open shelves)

The library has excellent indexes of consolidated Jamaican legislation, compiled by the University of the West Indies in Barbados, with the latest the library's received on the open shelves at GN7.E.1. Older volumes are in the reserve collection, and the library has editions from 1982, though not a complete set.

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Law reports

The IALS library has a good collection of the available law reports for Jamaica.

The earliest decisions available date from 1774 and can be found in Supreme Court decisions of Jamaica and Privy Council decisions from 1774-1923 (published in 1924 by J.E.R Stephens in London), in two volumes. These are shelved at GN7.G.5. They are popularly known as “Stephens Reports”.

The Jamaica law reports have decisions from 1933-1997, and are shelved at GN7.G.1, in 34 volumes, published by Butterworths.

IALS Library also has the 6 volume Gleaner law reports (1963-68), reporting cases in the Court of Appeal, shelved at GN7.G.3.

There is also a one volume collection of judgments from 1917-1932, published by the Jamaican Government Printing Office in 1936 and edited by Adrian John Clark, shelved at GN7.G.4. Also known as “Clark’s Reports”.

Jamaican cases can also be found in the West Indian reports (GN1.G.2), the Caribbean commercial law reports (GN1.G.3) and the Law reports of the Commonwealth (GB1.G.1).

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IALS library has a good representative collection of books specifically about Jamaica, as well as books on the Commonwealth Caribbean region in general with sections on Jamaica.

Books on Jamaica will be shelved at GN7.b-d, and IALS library has at least 20 monographs. Constitutional texts are shelved at GN7.C. 1 (there is also material relating to the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands shelved here).

Some books include:

Cyber law in Jamaica, by Nicole Foga. Published in 2012 by Kluwer Law International, GN7.C.7 FOG.

Historical foundations of Jamaican law, by Raphael Codlin. Published in 2003 by Canoe Press.

International law and selected human rights in Jamaica, by S.C. Vasciannie. Published in 2002 by the Jamaican Council of Legal Education. GN7.C.5 VAS.

Industrial relations law and practice in Jamaica, by George Kirkaldy. Published in 1998 by the Caribbean Law Publications Company. GN7.D.5 KIR.

The emergence of an Afro-Caribbean legal tradition: gender relations and family courts in Kingston, Jamaica, by Suzanne LaFont. Published in 1996 by Austin & Winfield. GN7.D.1 LAF.

Essays on the Jamaican legal system, by Hugh V.T Chambers. Published in 1974 by Metro Press. GN7.C.1 CHA.

Books on the region as a whole with sections on Jamaica are shelved at GN1.b-d. One such recently published book is Traditions in Caribbean law: law-making, constitutionalism and the convergence of national and international law, edited by David S. Berry and Tracy Robinson, published in Jamaica in 2013 by Caribbean Law Publishing, shelved at GN1.C.1 BER.

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The following journals are in the IALS Library collection:

          Jamaica law journal, 1970-75, FOL GN7.J.1

         Recommendations made by the Law Reform Committee of Jamaica, 1964-1972, FOL GN7.J.2

         West Indian law journal, 1977- , FOL GN7.J.3

         The young attorney, 1978-87, FOL GN7.J.4

There are a number of journals for the region as a whole which contain material specific to Jamaica as well as comparative material, and can be found at GN1.

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Online resources

There are a number of online resources for Jamaican law, some free which anyone can access, whilst others are subscription databases.

Free resources

Legislation can be found on the website of the Jamaican Ministry of Justice. Recent legislation can be found on the website of the Parliament.

A GlobaLex guide on Jamaican legal research is available, written and updated by Jeanne Slowe and Claudette Solomon.

A digital copy of Notes of Cases Adjudged in Jamaica, May 1774 to Dec. 1787 has been freely made available by Harvard Univeristy Library.

Subscription databases

JustisOne includes CariLaw, a searchable database of Caribbean case law, which includes coverage of cases from Jamaica. Also included are cases from the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. See the IALS Library catalogue for access details.


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