This page explains the structure of the New Zealand court system and heirarchy, from the District Court up to the Supreme Court, and other relevant tribunals.
Are the NZ Courts independent?
Absolutely. New Zealand has three distinct branches of government that operate independently from one another. These branches are legislature (Parliament, who make laws by passing statutes), the Executive – meaning Cabinet and Ministers (in a coalition some may be outside Cabinet) plus government departments, like the police, who enforce the laws, and finally the Judiciary (our court system, which applies and interprets those laws).
Although state funded and paid, New Zealand has a strong history of independent judges who believe in the rule of law and are willing to hold the other branches of government to account when necessary. Bear in mind, though, that ultimately Parliament is the supreme branch and if it passes a clear law by valid majority of MPs, the Courts cannot overturn it or strike it down. However, they may sometimes interpret its wording narrowly in specific cases, a process sometimes described as ‘reading it down’.
New Zealand has an adversarial court system, where in most cases counsel for each side of the dispute will present their evidence and argue their case before a judge who knows at the outset little about the matter. That Judge then makes their decision based on what evidence and arguments is presented to them; not usually going into their own inquisitorial lines of enquiry outside the bounds of what the parties choose to present.
What court sits at the top of the NZ tree?
We have a hierarchical court structure, derived from the British system, with rights of appeal up the tree. The Supreme Court sits at the top, and it was established in 2004 to replace the old English Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Below that sits the Court of Appeal, the High Court, and the District Court, in that order. These are our main courts which all have a general jurisdiction, meaning they deal with the whole range of civil and criminal cases that society may throw up for resolution.
New Zealand also has a number of specialist courts that sit below, or at an equal level to, the District Court. Often they will be located in the same physical building as a District Court. Examples include the Environment Court, Youth Court or Family Court.
How do appeals take place?
Depending on which court the matter starts off in (frequently, the District Court) there is normally one appeal as of right available to the losing party, and then one further appeal possible if leave to appeal is granted by the appropriate judge(s).
As the court of final appeal, the Supreme Court is the end of the road for litigants, and it concentrates on cases having a wide impact, raising crunchy policy questions, or important to maintaining overall coherence in the legal system.
Appeals to the Supreme Court can be heard only with the leave of that court. It must give leave to appeal only if it is satisfied that it is necessary in the interests of justice; in any given year it will usually refuse leave to appeal in more cases than it will allow. In practice, this means that for many disputes the Court of Appeal (usually sitting in divisions of 3 judges) may end up the final appellate body for that particular issue, and so its rulings and precedents can be very important too.
Which court should I begin my case in?
Which court to make a claim in depends on a number of factors, so there is not an automatic choice. Key issues include:
- the value of the claim – where it is a small claim up to NZ$350,000, the District Court or even the Disputes Tribunal may be the appropriate and likely choice;
- for larger value claims, the High Court is the place to commence a claim for most litigants; you cannot originate a claim in the Court of Appeal;
- what the claim is about – certain types of jurisdiction/areas of law, for instance Insolvency and Company Liquidations, must go to the High Court, and in addition there are many specialist tribunals and other courts (e.g. Employment Court) that are dedicated to particular issues of law.
For civil claims involving commercial cases or money claim, the person starting a case will be called the plaintiff, and the one being sued the defendant. It may also be the case that you cannot personally bring a claim for some kinds of issue. For example, criminal proceedings are brought by the Crown/Police or another government agency authorised under a statute. It is rare for private prosecutions to occur, and they generally require leave of the NZ Attorney-General before going ahead.