Guide last updated by Alice Tyson, February 2022
This guide was created by Adam Woellhaf, former Document Supply Services Supervisor at IALS Library.
We also recommend the following online research guides for foreign jurisdictions.
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 and colonisation began in 1509 with Spanish settlers. By 1665 none 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. Jamaica is an independent member of the Commonwealth.
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 Jamaica Constitution 1962 took effect on August 6 1962, when Jamaica gained independence from Britain. The Constitution was included as the second schedule to the Jamaica (Constitution) Order in Council 1962 under the West Indies Act, 1962. A print copy is available at IALS Library at classmark GN1.C.1.AAA and a digital copy is available to download from the website of the Jamaica Information Service.
For amending laws and a selection of commentary, see the HeinOnline subscription database World Constitutions Illustrated (this is available to IALS Library academic members from the Law Databases page of the IALS website).
The Jamaican judiciary is based on the English Common law tradition, whereby lower courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts, and courts are bound by their own earlier decisions, unless overruled in a different case.
The Jamaican courts comprise a five-tier hierarchy, in ascending order:
1. Petty Session Courts. The Petty Sessions courts deal with minor offences and are presided over by Justices of the Peace (JPs).
2. Parish Courts (formerly known as the Resident Magistrates' Courts). The Parish Courts are inferious courts of record. At this level the court deals with less serious civil and criminal matters. Appeals can be heard in the Court of Appeal.
3. The Supreme Court of Jamaica. The Supreme Court is the highest first instance court and a superior court of record. The Superior Court has jurisdiction in Admiralty, Family, Civil, Commercial, Criminal, Family and Succession cases. Appeals go to the Court of Appeal.
4. The Court of Appeal. The Court if Appeal was established by the constitution of 1962 and is the court to which all appeals are first referred. The Court may confirm, vary or overturn previous decisions of the first instance courts.
5. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC). The 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, or cases of a certain monetary value 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 February 2022, this has not happened.
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, 1941-1956, 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 has 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.
Unofficial versions of legislation passed and brought into effect prior to 2015 is available from the Ministry of Justice website. Legislation passed by the Houses of Parliament since 2009 and Bills are available on the Houses of Parliament website.
The Commonwealth Legal Information Institute (CommonLII) offers an alternative way to access Jamaican consolidated acts 1681-2011, and subsiduary legislation 1898-2010 (both based on data from the Ministry of Justice website), or numbered acts 2009-2016 (based on data obtained from the Parliament website).
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 and on Lexis+), the Caribbean commercial law reports (GN1.G.3) and the Law reports of the Commonwealth (GB1.G.1 and on Lexis+).
Supreme Court Judgments can be found on the Supreme Court website, although there are only a small number of judgemnts pre-1994. Court of Appeal judgments may be located on the Court of Appeal website, with civil judgments available from 2002 and criminal judgments available from 1994.
An alternative source of judgments is the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute (CommonLII), which has judgments from the Court of Appeal of Jamaica 2000-2016 and from the Supreme Court 1994-2016.
The final court of appeal for Jamaica is the Judicial Council of the Privy Council (JCPC), whose judgments can be found from the JCPC website, or from the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII).
Judgments from Jamaican courts may also be located on the subscription database vLexJustis (available to IALS Library members from the Law Databases page of the IALS website).
As noted above, the West Indian Law Reports and the Law Reports of the Commonwealth both contain some Jamaican case law and are both available on the subscription database Lexis+ (available to IALS Library members from the Law Databases page of the IALS website).
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. The best way to identify books held in the IALS Library is to search the catalogue using the relevant classmark, or using keywords.
Books on Jamaica will be shelved at GN7.b-d. 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:
Biholar R, Transforming discriminatory sex roles and gender stereotyping : the implementation of Article 5(a) CEDAW for the realisation of women's right to be free from gender-based violence in Jamaica (Cambridge: Intersentia 2013)
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.
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, RES 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.
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.