This article would be more apt under a “social” rather than a “legal” due diligence category. But I believe that after 24 years of living in Costa Rica — 19 of them practicing law — a reflection on these social compromises is necessary to complete the due diligence investigation required of any expat moving to live in Costa Rica. This is particularly true for U.S. and Canadian expats, who make up the greatest number of such expats and face the biggest challenges to socially adapt.

Moving to live in a foreign country is a life-changing event and an expensive undertaking. It is imperative that an expat contemplating such a move be complete in both their legal and social due diligence inquiries. The integrity of the party providing the expat with such advice must also be of serious consideration, to identify any overriding self-interest or other conflict of interest on the advice-giver’s part.

As statistics show, a large percentage of expats return to their home country within two years of moving to live full-time in Costa Rica, for the reason of not being able to “fit in,” socially speaking.

Costa Ricans are generally a polite, friendly, and pacifistic group of people. However, the social, legal, and cultural differences are strikingly different indeed, from those of many expats.

Differences in legal structure

Most expats will come from jurisdictions where English common law is the legal system utilized. This system of laws originates from England and is the dominant system of laws in the U.S., Canada, and British commonwealth countries. It is a system composed of statutory and judge-made laws. It allows for an evolution of the law based on societal changes over time, as interpreted by judges in court, producing a “common thread” of legal jurisprudence respected by the courts as a whole.

In Costa Rica, as in all of Latin America, Civil Law (Roman Law) is the legal system that has been adopted, for the most part, from the mother country of Spain. This legal system is considerably different in its approach to delivering justice. Each area of the law (eg. criminal, family, etc.), is codified into various legal declarations in the form of articles, which are applied by a judge to any fact situation presented in court, largely without reference to any established jurisprudence.

Case precedents producing a common thread of legal jurisprudence do not form an integral part of the judicial process as in English common law. This allows for a greater opportunity for external influences to affect a judicial outcome, and corruption is an issue.

Differences in social structure and social norms

Although a plethora of social and cultural differences can be observed, understanding a few main ones can be very helpful.

Roots: Costa Rica largely has a “class-driven” social structure. The political power rests in an elite class comprised of old family money and associations dating back to Costa Rica’s beginnings as a republic 200 years ago. This has resulted in a defacto oligarchy being created. Upward mobility between classes has been slow to evolve over the years. People from the poorer class levels of society, particularly in rural areas, have difficulty making eye contact with the elites when engaged in conversation, being cowed into humility. The status quo between the social classes continues by design.

Thought process: Logical thinking takes on a new form, as does problem-solving. Problem-solving is, more often than not, performed on a “reactive” rather than a “proactive” basis. The logic of solving a problem before one suffers the negative consequences has yet to be realized in Costa Rica society. Expats will find themselves questioning what will be perceived as an awkward approach used by Costa Ricans to undertake a particular task, for what would be considered to the expat as a relatively easy and alternative way to proceed, had the same issue arisen in their homeland.

“Tico” time: Timeliness, either in completing tasks or arriving for appointments on time is also a significant difference to be faced. The assertive reaction by an expat for a Costa Rican to complete a task in the agreed-upon time frame may result in a “stonewalling” response, where nothing will happen.

Government oversight: In comparison to countries such as Canada or the U.S., in Costa Rica, there is substantially less government oversight through regulation or otherwise, as to the veracity of the conduct of business transactions and as to the professional conduct of those parties involved in them. Even where such written regulations exist, the policy or will to enforce them tends to be weak and ineffective in many cases. Individuals have a much greater personal responsibility to carry out the due diligence inquiries necessary to ensure that such transactions that they plan to involve themselves in are being conducted in a proper and professional manner.

My opinion

There are countless more examples of the social differences that expats moving to Costa Rica will encounter. If you are an expat merely living on an offshore pension, or investment income, and paying monthly living expenses, your requirement to compromise to accept these social, legal, and cultural differences required to integrate into the Costa Rica societal makeup will be minimal.

However, to become totally immersed in Costa Rican society, from a living and a business point of view, will require a significantly greater compromise to be made, in order to sustain an enduring social integration.

Remember, they won’t be changing.

For more information and answers to your questions on diverse legal topics, visit Costa Rica Canada Law:

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