Judiciary of New Zealand

The judiciary of New Zealand is a system of courts that interprets and applies the laws of New Zealand, to ensure equal justice under law, and to provide a mechanism for dispute resolution. The judiciary has four levels: the six-member Supreme Court is the highest court; the ten-member Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court on points of law; the High Court deals with serious criminal offences and civil matters, and hears appeals from the lower courts; and the District Court, which meets in fifty-eight locations. There is also a separate Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court which have jurisdiction over Māori land cases[1] under the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993.[2]

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Court hierarchy

The Supreme Court sits at the apex of the New Zealand court hierarchy as the final appellate court.[3] Cases may only go to the Supreme Court if it grants "leave to appeal".[4] It generally hears appeals of considerable public interest, commercial significance, substantial miscarriages of justice or significant issues relating to the Treaty of Waitangi. The chief justice presides over the Supreme Court and is described in the Judicature Act as the head of the judiciary.[5] Before the Supreme Court first met in 2004, the Privy Council in London served as the highest court.[6]

The High Court and Court of Appeal are subordinate appellate courts. The High Court is also the highest court of first instance, primarily hearing complex cases or those cases which exceed the lower courts' jurisdiction. This includes all criminal trials for murder, manslaughter and treason. The District Court hears more than 95% of all criminal trials.[7] The Family Court and Youth Court are specialist divisions of District Court, dealing with families and young people, respectively.[8][9] Other specialist courts include: the Employment Court; the Environment Court; the Māori Land Court; the Māori Appellate Court; and disputes tribunals, which are small claims courts.[4] The Waitangi Tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry established under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975.[10]

Supreme Court
Court of Appeal
Employment CourtHigh CourtMāori Appellate Court
District Court
(incl. Youth Court and Family Court)
Environment CourtMāori Land Court
Tribunals and authorities


New Zealand practices the common law legal system,[11] where the decisions of higher courts constitute binding precedent upon courts of equal or lower status within their jurisdiction, as opposed to the civil law legal system in the continental Europe.[12]

The laws of New Zealand are based on English law, some older statutes of the British Parliament (notably the Bill of Rights 1689), statutes of the New Zealand Parliament and decisions of the New Zealand courts.[11] The laws are based on three related principles: parliamentary sovereignty; the rule of law; and the separation of powers. In interpreting common law, New Zealand judges have followed British decisions, although they are not bound by them,[11] thereby preserving uniformity with British common law, bolstered by the long-term role of the Privy Council.


The chief justice is formally appointed by the governor-general on the recommendation of the prime minister. The judges of the Māori Land Court are appointed by the governor-general on the recommendation of the minister for Māori Development.[13] All other superior court judges are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the attorney-general, the chief justice, and the solicitor-general collectively.[14]

Judges and judicial officers are appointed non-politically and under strict rules regarding tenure to help maintain independence from the executive government.[13] Judges are appointed according to their qualifications, personal qualities, and relevant experience.[14] A judge may not be removed from office except by the attorney-general upon an address of the House of Representatives (Parliament) for proved misbehaviour.[13]

Judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court are titled "Justice", while those of lower courts are titled "Judge". Judges in New Zealand are addressed as "Your Honour" or "Sir/Madam".[15] In Commonwealth tradition, New Zealand judges do not use gavels.[16] Instead, a judge raises his or her voice (or stands up if necessary) to restore order in the courtroom.


A Supreme Court was first established in 1841[17] followed by various lower courts including District Courts and Magistrates' Courts, with the latter coming into being in 1846. The Court of Appeal was set up in 1862 as the highest court in New Zealand, but consisted of panels of judges from the Supreme Court.[3] Appeals could be taken from the Court of Appeal to the Privy Council. The District Courts were abolished in 1925 but later re-established. In 1957 the Court of Appeal was fully separated from the Supreme Court, by having its own judges.[3]

The Native Land Court was established in 1865 under the Native Lands Act,[18][19] to "define the land rights of Māori people under Māori custom and to translate those rights or customary titles into land titles recognisable under European law".[20] The court was criticised for enabling the removal of Māori from their land, partly due to holding proceedings in English and in cities far from Māori settlements, judges with inadequate knowledge of Māori custom, and partly due to the laws it enforced.[18] Land law did not recognise that land was owned communally by hapū (clans), and land ownership was put in the hands of a few people. In 1954 it was renamed the Māori Land Court.[18] In the 1980s the judiciary played a major role in redefining and elevating the constitutional position of the Treaty of Waitangi.[21][22][23]

In 1980, the Supreme Court was renamed the High Court (as it called today), reflecting its intermediate role.[24] In October 2003, Parliament passed the Supreme Court Act 2003, establishing a new Supreme Court of New Zealand in Wellington in July 2004,[6] and simultaneously ending the right of appeal to the Privy Council.[25] The Privy Council dealt with only a small number of appeals annually and was shared with some other Commonwealth nations; the new Supreme Court allows for a quicker appeals process as more cases are heard.[6] In October 2016, the Senior Courts Act consolidated in a single statute the Judicature Act of 1908 and the Supreme Court Act, which were repealed.[26]

See also


  1. "About the Māori Land Court". Ministry of Justice. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  2. "Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993 (Maori Land Act 1993)". New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office. 5 December 2013. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  3. "History of court system". Courts of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  4. "Overview". Courts of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  5. "Judicature Act 1908 No 89 (as at 18 October 2016), Public Act". New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  6. "The Supreme Court – Spanning The Years". Ministry of Justice. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  7. Joseph, Philip A.; Joseph, Thomas (20 June 2012). "Judicial system". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  8. "About Family Court". Ministry of Justice. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  9. "About Youth Court". Youth Court of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  10. "Waitangi Tribunal". Ministry of Justice. Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  11. A. H. McLintock, ed. (18 September 2007) [1966]. "Law, History of". An Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  12. "Types of Law: Common Law v. Civil Law". University of Portsmouth. 2012. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  13. Joseph, Philip A.; Joseph, Thomas (20 June 2012). "Judicial system – Judges". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  14. "Appointments". Courts of New Zealand. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  15. "Appearing in courts and tribunals : Information for new lawyers". New Zealand Law Society. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  16. Adlam, Geoff (22 October 2015). "Four little online irritants". www.lawsociety.org.nz. NZ Law Society. Retrieved 11 February 2018.
  17. "Supreme Court Act 1841 (5 Victoriae 1841 No 1)". New Zealand Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  18. Ray, Arthur J. Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History. McGill-Queen's Press – MQUP. p. 33. ISBN 9780773599116.
  19. "The Native Lands Act 1865". Early New Zealand Statutes. University of Auckland. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  20. "Our History – Māori Land Court". Ministry of Justice. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  21. New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General [1987] 1 NZLR 641 (HC & CA) [SOE case]
  22. He Tirohanga ō Kawa ki te Tiriti o Waitangi: a guide to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as expressed by the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal (PDF). Te Puni Kokiri. 2001. p. 15. ISBN 0-478-09193-1. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  23. Janine Hayward (13 July 2012). "Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – ngā mātāpono o te tiriti – Treaty principles developed by courts". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  24. "Judicature Amendment Act 1972". New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office. Retrieved 31 January 2017.
  25. "Supreme Court Act 2003". New Zealand Legislation. Parliamentary Counsel Office. 1 July 2013. Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  26. "Parliament makes major changes to NZ court system". New Zealand Law Society. 12 October 2016. Retrieved 18 September 2019.

Further reading

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