History of the Courts

Following the seizure of Gibraltar in 1704 and its cession to the British Crown, the first court to be created by Letters Patent was on the 4 November 1720.  This is generally known as the First Charter of Justice.  As a conquered territory, the law in Gibraltar theoretically remained Spanish as the First Charter of Justice laid down that the law in civil matters was to be that of Spain. In 1740, the Second Charter of Justice substituted English Law for Spanish Law with the declaration,

“We will that the Laws of England be the measure of Justice between the Parties.”

Between 1740 and 1830, two further Charters of Justice variously added jurisdictions or amended court structures.  The Fifth Charter of Justice, Letters Patent dated 1 September 1830, established many features of the structure to the court system that is still in place today.  It introduced the principle of the independence of the judiciary, the Supreme Court and appeals to the Privy Council.

The Fifth Charter of Justice was amended by Order in Council on the 30 April 1877 to create the title of Chief Justice.

Further jurisdictions for Divorce, Matrimonial, Admiralty and the Court of Protection were added between 1888 and 1968.  The new constitution for Gibraltar in 1969 created the Court of Appeal, with a further right of appeal in civil matters to Her Majesty in Council.  In criminal matters, Her Majesty may be petitioned by leave of the Privy Council.
It is not known exactly when Coroner’s Courts first operated in Gibraltar. They certainly operated before the application of the 1837 English Coroners’ Inquests Expenses Act.  The first local ordinance to regulate their jurisdiction and duties was the Coroner’s Ordinance, Gibraltar, 1889.

The current Magistrates’ Court structure can trace its origins to a second Proclamation of the Fifth Charter of Justice, dated 21 November 1832.  This held that the Courts of General Quarter Sessions and General Sessions of the Peace should be held by the Police Magistrate and any two or more Justices of the Peace.

The first comprehensive ordinance setting out the powers, authorities and duties of the Justices of the Peace was the Ordinance to Improve the Administration of the Law by Justices out of Sessions, Gibraltar, 1867. This was updated with the Magistrates’ Court Ordinance 1961, which also replaced the title of Police Magistrate with the current title of Stipendiary Magistrate.

The last significant development was the influence of the European Court of Justice.  Following the enactment of the European Communities Ordinance 1973, reference to the Court became possible and Community Judgements could be registered and enforced under the European Communities (Enforcement of Community Judgements) Ordinance 1973.

This summary of the history of the courts in Gibraltar is taken from the Gibraltar Law Reports 1812 – 1977, edited by Sir John Farley Spry.