henry_morgan_in_colourWhen I do my “Beyond Johnny Depp: The History of Piracy” lecture on board ships, I like to have some fun with the audience and include some of the dumbest pirate jokes I know.

“Where did the pirate stop for breakfast?”

“IHOP.”  Someone always yells this out and I can respond, “Either you have a 5-year-old grandson or a five-year-old’s sense of humor.”  It always gets a laugh, except when I was on GRAND PRINCESS with a 99.8% British audience who hadn’t the vaguest idea what an “IHOP” (Pancake Restaurant chain in the US) was!

My favorite dumb pirate joke: “What do you call it when you have 500 pirates in the same room?”

“A lawyer’s convention.”

So we all grouse and gripe about inequities in the law, stupid laws, the often injustice that characterizes the law in the US – Oliver Wendell Holmes, “This is a court of law, not a court of justice” – but it IS the devil we know.  Before you decide to move off to another country, be it Panama or anywhere else, you need to take a look at the legal system, which may be VERY different from that to which you are accustomed.

US law is based on English Common Law and case law which is why would-be lawyers spend so much time studying cases and quoting chapter and verse from cases which set precedent for future legal decisions.  Panamanian law is VERY different being based largely on colonial Spanish law and Colombian law, since of course Panama was part of the Spanish Empire and after Simon Bolivar’s liberation, part of Colombia.  Long association with the US has added in a few things adapted from US law and practice, but it isn’t the same.  In the end it is up to judges to make decisions based on the judges understanding and interpretation of the law, not case law or precedents.  Which for a US American kind of throws everything up into the air!


Most nations today follow one of two major legal traditions: common law or civil law. The common law tradition emerged in England during the Middle Ages and was applied within British colonies across continents. The civil law tradition developed in continental Europe at the same time and was applied in the colonies of European imperial powers such as Spain and Portugal. Civil law was also adopted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by countries formerly possessing distinctive legal traditions, such as Russia and Japan, that sought to reform their legal systems in order to gain economic and political power comparable to that of Western European nation-states.

To an American familiar with the terminology and process of our legal system, which is based on English common law, civil law systems can be unfamiliar and confusing. Even though England had many profound cultural ties to the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages, its legal tradition developed differently from that of the continent for a number of historical reasons, and one of the most fundamental ways in which they diverged was in the establishment of judicial decisions as the basis of common law and legislative decisions as the basis of civil law.  [The Common Law and Civil Law Traditions, UCBerkley – well worth reading]

From the US Department of State:
Panama has a court and judicial system built around a civil code, as opposed to the Anglo-American system of case law and judicial precedent. Panama started in September 2011 a four year conversion to the accusatory system which is expected to simplify and expedite criminal judicial cases. Fundamental procedural rights in civil cases are broadly similar to those available in U.S. civil courts, although some notice and discovery rights, particularly in administrative matters, may be less extensive than in the U.S. Judicial pleadings are not always a matter of public record, nor are the processes always transparent.

Many lack confidence in the Panamanian judicial system as an objective, independent arbiter in legal or commercial disputes, especially when the case involves powerful local figures with political influence. For example, Panama ranked 133 out of 142 in judicial independence in the September 2011 World Economic Forum report. Over the last few years, the majority of disputes involving U.S. investors have been related to land purchasing and/or titling issues. Such disputes have been difficult to resolve due to the lack of adequate titling, inconsistent regulations, lack of trained officials outside of Panama City, and a slow and cumbersome judiciary. Some of these disputes have resulted from U.S. investors being unfamiliar with the Panamanian titling system. The court system is slow and prone to massive case backlogs and corruption. For this reason, Panamanian legal firms typically recommend that companies write arbitration clauses into contracts.

Panama’s commercial law is comprehensive and well-established. Its bankruptcy law is antiquated and remains under review to be adapted to modern business practices.
The Hauser Global Law School Program, New York University School of Law, has an interesting Guide to Panama’s Legal System which is well worth reading before you embrace a devil you don’t know.

The path to becoming a lawyer is much different that in the US as well.
Accreditation as attorney-at-law is granted to all Panamanian citizens that earn a law degree from a Panamanian law school (or a law school from a Spanish-speaking country recognized by the University of Panama) and apply to the General Affairs Section of the Supreme Court.   Graduates from non-recognized foreign law schools must comply with a thesis requirement in Panama.  Membership in a Panamanian bar association is a requirement to litigate. [But not just to practice law. – RD]

Go to school: become a lawyer. And many people do. There seem to be more lawyers in Panama than any other profession, but, not all lawyers are equal. This will shock most US Americans: there is no bar exam in Panama! You have to pass your courses, but there is no final test to see if you learned what you need to know to practice law. So there are excellent lawyers and there are some . . . who . . . Well, just let me say it is a good idea to talk to a lot of people and get a lot of feedback before you jump into a relationship with a lawyer in Panama. You WILL need a lawyer, even just for day-to-day matters, but choose carefully. And if you have the misfortune to end up in court . . . plan for the case to take years and the legal fees to soar. And should you have the worst misfortune, and end up in an accident where, God forbid, someone dies, expect that everyone . . . EVERYONE except the dead person . . . goes directly to jail, does not pass GO, and does not collect $200. And you wait in jail while the lawyers and authorities sort things out which may take days, weeks, or even years.  In Panama, unlike in the US before the “Patriot” Act, there is no right to a speedy trial.

And a Panamanian jail is NOT where you want to be!