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Commonwealth Caribbean Court Systems: Home

A brief look at the various court systems in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

About this guide

This Guide provides general information about the regional courts in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

This page (Home page) gives a general history of the British West Indies courts. 

Follow the tabs at the top of this page for information on each country's judicial system.

About the Court Systems

The Commonwealth Caribbean is the region of the Caribbean with English-speaking countries and territories, which once constituted the Caribbean portion of the British Empire and are now part of the Commonwealth of Nations. The term includes many independent island nations, British Overseas Territories and some mainland nations. It is also known as the English-speaking Caribbean, Anglophone Caribbean, Anglo-Caribbean, or English-speaking West Indies. The term is now used in preference over the older term British West Indies, which was used to describe the British colonies in the West Indies during decolonisation and following independence from the United Kingdom. Anglo-Caribbean and British Commonwealth Caribbean also became preferred replacement terms to British West Indies.

The court system of the Commonwealth Caribbean closely mirrors that of the United Kingdom. Although many countries in the Caribbean have become independent over the years from 1962, majority has maintained the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as their final court. A few has opted so far to join the Caribbean Court of Justice as their final court of appeal. At the national level, superior courts of record include, the Court of Appeal, the High Court or Supreme Court and the Magistrates Court.

It is important to note that some jurisdictions "Supreme Court" is made up of both High Court and Court of Appeal and in other jurisdictions the "Supreme Court" is a synonym for the High Court.

At the national level in some jurisdictions, there may also be specialty courts, such as the Industrial Dispute Tribunal or Revenue Court, or the discontinued Divisional Court in Barbados.

Brief History of the Courts

Not all courts and their establishments are listed below. The treatment of each island/territory/colony may not be captured in their entirety, as this is more of a general outlook of the regional courts history, rather a detailed synopsis of each jurisdiction and their specific court history.

1774 - 1919

In 1774, the first instance of Supreme Court decisions for Jamaica was recorded.

In Trinidad, the establishment of the Court of first instance of Civil Jurisdiction took placed in 1822.

British Guiana in 1821, there is recordings of an appointed Chief Justice. The library holds a volume of digest cases from 1856, this is an indication of a court during this period.

Between 1833 and 1871, the British Leeward Islands (Antigua, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla and Dominica (to 1940)) had their individual courts per island. After 1871, a Supreme Court was established and headed by the Chief Justice of the Leeward Islands.

In 1859, a common court of appeal for the British Windward Islands was established, composed of the chief justices of the respective island colonies. The islands that made up the British Windward Islands were Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, the Grenadines, Barbados (the seat of the governor until 1885, when it returned to its former status of a completely separate colony), Tobago (until 1889, when it was joined to Trinidad), and (from 1940) Dominica, previously included in the British Leeward Islands.

In 1896, the Supreme Court of the Bahamas was established by Act of Parliament.

1919 - 1958

In 1919, under the West Indian Court of Appeal Act 1919 the court of appeal established in 1859 was replaced by the West Indian Court of Appeal. However, the new court was responsible for appeals from the Windward Islands and also the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and British Guiana. Decisions of the court could be appealed with leave to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The West Indian Court of Appeal (WICA) was a court which served as the appellate court from 1919 until the creation of the Federal Supreme Court of the West Indies Federation in 1958.

In 1939, the Leeward Islands and Windward Islands (Courts) Order in Council established the Supreme Court of the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands, and the Court of Appeal for the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands. 

After the West Indies Federation was created, the Federal Supreme Court was formed as the successor to the West Indian Court of Appeal (established in 1919) and its jurisdiction remained the same in addition to Jamaica and its dependencies, British Guiana and the Virgin Islands. Appeals from British Honduras to Jamaica ceased by the enactment of the British Caribbean Federation Act 1956.

1962 - 2001

The West Indies Act of 1962 dissolved the Court of Appeal established under West India Court of Appeal Act 1919, and reinstated the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands (Courts) Order in Council 1959 and 1960 amendment.

Jamaica gained independence in 1962 and the established a Court of Appeal. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal.

Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962 and the established a Court of Appeal. Final appeals rested with the Privy Council.

The Bahamas Court of Appeal was established in 1965. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal.

In 1966, Barbados gained independence and the court of appeal was established. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal.

In 1966, Guyana gained independence and the Court of Appeal was established. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal.

In 1967, the West Indies Act of 1967 established common courts for the associated states (Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Christopher, Nevis and Anguilla, St. Lucia and St. Vincent ) and included provision for Montserrat and the Virgin Islands. The West Indies Associated States Supreme Court Order No. 223 of 1967 provided for the fusion of the High Court and Court of Appeal into one Supreme Court. The civil jurisdiction of the former Supreme Court of the Windward and Leeward Islands was vested in the High Court of the now-established West Indies Associated States Supreme Court. After the Treaty of Basseterre in 1981, the West Indies Associated States Supreme Court is now styled as the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court. The Privy Council remained the final court of appeal for most countries. 

2001 -

In 2001, the Agreement Establishing the Caribbean Court of Justice was signed by ten (10) Member States, and the court was officially inaugurated in 2005. The following countries replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the CCJ as their final court of appeal: Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Guyana and St. Lucia.

The CCJ has two jurisdictions, that of original and appellate. In its original jurisdiction, the CCJ interprets and applies the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which established the Caribbean Community, and is an international court with compulsory and exclusive jurisdiction in respect of the interpretation of the treaty; and in its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ hears appeals as the court of last resort in both civil and criminal matters.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remains the final court of appeal for all other jurisdictions.

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Please note that the contents of this guide are provided strictly for individual, non-commercial, academic/educational, reference and/or research use and do not constitute legal advice. This guide does not substitute an individual's right to do their own research. Persons seeking legal advice should consult a practising attorney-at-law in their jurisdiction. 

The information of this guide was compiled using open sources such as official websites and other resources.

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