The legal system is based on Portuguese civil law system and customary law, recently modified to accommodate political pluralism and increased use of free markets. Prior to independence, Portuguese civil and military law was applied by municipal courts, labor courts, ordinary courts, and administrative tribunals; final appeal was to the Metropolitan High Court in Lisbon. A 1978 law declared that people's courts with working class representatives would be courts of first instance. It also made provisions for criminal, police, and labor courts with lay judges whose voices would be equal to those of professional judges.
The judicial system includes municipal and provincial courts at the trial level and a Supreme Court at the appellate level. Municipal court judges are usually laymen. In theory, the Ministry of Justice administers provincial courts located in each of the 18 provincial capitals. The Supreme Court nominates provincial court judges. The judge of the provincial court, along with two laymen, acts as a jury.
In 1991, the constitution was amended to guarantee an independent judiciary. In practice, however, the president appoints the 16 Supreme Court judges for life upon recommendation of an association of magistrates, and he appoints the attorney general. Confirmation by the General Assembly is not required.
Several issues confront the legal system. Many of the seats on the Supreme Court remain vacant, and a Constitutional Court, authorized by law in 1992, has not yet been established. In addition, the courts were crippled by the war and are perceived ineffective and untrustworthy by the few who have access to it. The system lacks the resources and independence to play an effective role and the legal framework is obsolete; much of the criminal and commercial code reflects the colonial era with modifications from the Marxist era.