Judiciary restricts key files on crimes and lawsuits

The judicial Web page down for 'maintenance.'

The Poder Judicial has quietly made private a data base that contains the names of individuals and corporations who have faced or are facing civil and criminal charges.

A U.S. private detective who does business in Costa Rica is leading a crusade —so far unsuccessful —  to have the public records again open to the public.

The data base is called the online consultation system, but a key link, that to the names of parties in court cases is not working and a notation says that this particular information is undergoing maintenance.  However, Lena White Curling, identified as the Poder Judicial’s contralora de servicios, said in an email to the investigator that the agency was just following the law.

“As I explained, Costa Rican Law (also several constitutional court rulings) has limited the court’s ability to continue providing the information you request, so complying with your request would be solely in the hands of the members of our congress (Asamblea Legislativa),” she said.

The investigator, Seth Derish, had asked for a meting with a Corte Suprema magistrate who was involved in the situation. The magistrate had not responded. Ms. White suggested the magistrate was busy with court activities.

“Under the previous system, any member of the public with access to the Internet could check the name of a person or corporation or by their cédula number to see if they had civil and criminal cases in most major judicial districts,” said Derish.   They could then get a list of documents filed in the case and whether it was open or shut.  They could not get personal data from this type of search such as dates of birth, or cédula numbers, etc. “

He noted that such information is vital for anyone doing due diligence before becoming involved in business with firms or persons in Costa Rica.

Many Costa Rican court proceedings, except full trials, frequently are closed, as are the case files. Only those involved in the cases and their lawyers may see the files.

Derish said that he had been told that the restriction was enforced because access to the data base is under review because of a law for the protection of personal data. He said he was unsuccessful in getting a copy of the directive that ordered this change.

Said Derish:

“While this was an admirable attempt at protecting the privacy of all residents of Costa Rica, some agencies are taking this law too far and restricting their data in a way that will impede the public’s right to know. Making this search only available to those with passwords (just who are these people?), would mean that only government officials will have access to this information and keep the public in the dark about many things — for example, if someone is running for public office and has a criminal or civil fraud background; if your neighbor has been charged with murder or rape or child molestation; if you or a company want to do business with an individual or business and you want to know if they have any prior financial or legal problems.

“Costa Rica is already receiving a black eye in the international financial community for its inconsistent government decision regarding investors, and now this will add fuel to the fire if proper due diligence cannot be conducted by interested parties.”

He noted that much private information is readily available from the Registro Civil via the Internet. The Registro keeps information on births, deaths, marriages, divorces, cédula numbers and birth dates. In addition local credit reporting agencies have all sorts of information in their files, including personal telephone numbers and salaries that are available for a fee.

“Only old fashioned dictatorships keep court records secret,” Derish said. “Costa Rica can do better than that and work with interested parties to fashion a data protection law that balances the needs of an emerging democracy with that of the public’s right to know essential information.”

His firm, Costa Rica Investigations, S.A., has had an office in San Jose for 15 years.

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