The Law From Here: What is Legal Research like in Venezuela?

by Mariana Griffiths, LLM Candidate

Welcome to another installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Mariana Griffiths has considerable experience researching the law of another country–here, Venezuela. In Venezuela, Mariana worked as a legal coordinator. Currently, she works as corporate legal supervisor at UPS while she finishes up her LLM degree at GSU. In today’s The Law From Here, she offers her insights into legal research in the Venezuelan legal system, and how it compares (so far) to researching the law in the United States.

I received my law degree in Caracas, Venezuela at the Universidad Metropolitana or Metropolitan University at the age of 23 years old after finishing high school. In Venezuela it is not required: (1) to pursue an undergraduate degree before applying and start law school; (2) take a bar to practice law. As soon as you receive your law degree in Venezuela, you are licensed to practice nationwide if you register yourself with the Institute of Lawyers and obtain the registration number (which is equivalent to a bar number). However, there is no such requirement of passing the bar in the state where the attorney intends to practice law.

Mariana Griffiths

Venezuela’s legal system is governed by civil law, which is a codified system, meaning that the law is written and organized in codes for each area of the law. Venezuela is a centralized federalism in reality, but constitutionally it is a “Democratic and Social State of Law and Justice which holds as superior values of its legal order an actions those of life, liberty, justice equality solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and, in general the preeminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism,” Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela [VE][Constitution]Feb. 19, 2009, Title I, art. 2

The U.S. and Venezuelan flags.

Even though case law is not usually considered a fundamental source of law in Venezuela’s legal system, judicial decisions have become more important in many areas. In particular, there are important decisions regarding public matters such as use of public land, eminent domain (called ‘expropriations’), and infrastructure. The most important cases are the ones decided by the Supreme Court of Justice, which is Venezuela’s equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, although there are quite a few differences in composition and operation. The Supreme Court of Justice’s decisions are more likely to be published and create precedents for specific legal issues. However, although that court’s decisions are the most prominent, for case law research, there is no strict rule of hierarchy.

The Constitution in Venezuela is the supreme law of the land, and in the hierarchy of the laws, it is at the same tier as international treaties and agreements. Below, there are the codes and laws enacted by the Legislative Power and the Law Decrees issued by the President, which can be related to any matter, at any time, without any restriction, whether there is a national emergency or not. These decrees often include modifications to current law, which makes practicing law in Venezuela very challenging. It is important to note that in the last twenty years, the numbers of decrees has increased considerably as a way to escape the legislative process. These decrees usually strike down one or more segments of the law in question, as an amendment, which means the attorneys must research different decrees and other sources in order to discern the valid statutory law. Perhaps an analogy can explain it better—it is akin to ‘shepardizing’ case law in the United States.

Before endeavoring to contrast the common law and civil law systems of the U.S. and Venezuela, respectively, it is important to note that both systems have evolved with society’s technological and legal changes. Civil law countries have been relying on case law and using precedent to maintain uniformity in the judicial system, which helps to limit frivolous lawsuits and provides a reference for practicing litigant attorneys. And common law countries use precedent to identify potential areas of the law where statutory law is needed for the same reasons, and for the efficiency of the judicial system.

In Venezuela, like in the United States, there is a  separation of powers. However, this is a similarity with a distinction, since Venezuela’s government has five branches: legislative, executive, judicial, citizen and electoral. This separation of powers of five branches is included in an amendment to the Venezuelan Constitution. In contrast, the United State maintains the classic separation of powers with three branches, characterized by the element of check and balances.

The interaction and relationship between federal and state law is also quite different. In Venezuela, even though each state is autonomous, the codified law apply to all the states. Not all the states even have written constitutions or different laws. States do issue ordinances (at the level of administrative agencies) for local matters such as traffic, business licenses and use of the land, but they do not occupy the same legal space as the federal law. In some ways, this is a simpler system than what we find with the overlapping systems of federal and state law that characterize the United States.

As you might expect, these differences add up, and legal research in Venezuela is pretty different. First, you need to know that, when researching the law in Venezuela, you won’t likely find all of the key primary sources in any one single place, like you do in the U.S. when using Westlaw of Lexis. There is a company called Microjuris that provides some resources for legal research similar to what you might see on those platforms, but it is less complete and less sophisticated. More importantly, Microjuris is not always up-to-date and has an outdated design that, personally, I do not find be user-friendly.

Second, the number of executive decrees which modify the codified law is enormous. Sometimes, in one month, there are more than twenty! That means it is important that means you be up-to-date, which you can ensure by checking the Gazette Official published by the Supreme Court of Justice (the “Tribunal Supremo de Justicia”). Generally, it is a large file; the good news is that it is available online.

Third, because it is a codified law system, legal professionals base their research on the civil codes as primary sources. To support their arguments for a legal memo or for a case in litigation, the use of jurisprudence to supplement the civil codes is critical. There are reputable and well-known authors for each subject, often former judges or academic teacher.

These differences in their countries’ legal systems have a big impact on the way that attorneys research the law in Venezuela and the United States. Although case law is less prominent in Venezuelan law, the added wrinkle of ensuring your research of decrees is up-to-date adds to the challenge of researching Venezuelan, as does the unavailability of a comprehensive or user-friendly service for doing legal research online.