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If you have a legal problem in New Zealand, there are various avenues you can take to solve that problem. These range in formality, and what avenue you access will depend both on the nature of your issue and the resources available to you. However, it can be confusing to understand the differences in these avenues, especially if you have little experience with the New Zealand legal system. In particular, two of these avenues are courts and tribunals, which are different forums for the public to access for legal issues. For some guidance, this article will explain the difference between a court and a tribunal in New Zealand.

How Do the Courts Work in New Zealand?

Courts serve many functions within society. They are places that people with legal disputes or grievances can go to get a solution for those problems. They are also places where people can face accountability for their actions. A decision-maker, usually a judge or jury, will listen to the facts of the situation and the arguments given by counsel (usually lawyers). Then, they will make a decision based on those facts. The court system is separate from the government and can hold government actors, and itself, accountable.

The New Zealand court system operates from a hierarchy. If you were not happy with the result of the decision in a lower court, then you can appeal for a decision-maker from a higher court to consider your case. From the bottom of the hierarchy to the top, the four major courts are the:

  • District Court;
  • High Court;
  • Court of Appeal; and
  • Supreme Court.

There are also courts that hear specialised cases, which include the:

  • Family Court;
  • Employment Court;
  • Environment Court; and
  • Youth Court.

For example, if you are having issues with your employer, you may take a case to Employment Court. If the decision reached at that level is not the result that you wanted, there is the potential to appeal your case for someone else to consider at a higher court.

What Is a Tribunal?

While similar to a court, a tribunal is a different path that is available for legal grievances or issues. You may also know them as ‘authorities’ or ‘committees’. A mediator or decision-maker will listen to your case and establish a decision based on the situation. However, they will not usually be a judge and lawyers are typically not involved. 

Notably, tribunals can be more specialised and may have a limit on the monetary value of claims that they will hear. Additionally, each tribunal has rules about who can and cannot bring their claims to it.

For example, the Disputes Tribunal will only hear cases that amount to no more than $15,000 or $20,000 if both parties agree. There must also be some kind of dispute, such as neighbour or flatmate disputes.

There are many more tribunals than courts, with over 100 existing in New Zealand. The aim of these tribunals is to allow faster decisions on specialised topics that the courts may not have experience with, in a more flexible and informal setting in most cases. Tribunals tend to fall within three categories, which the table below outlines.

Administrative Review Tribunals

These authorities review government agency decisions and whether they were appropriately fair or reasonable. Both the Taxation Review Authority and the Waitangi Tribunal are these kinds of tribunals.

Civil Dispute Resolution Tribunals

These tribunals address civil disputes between individuals. Examples include the Tenancy Tribunal and the Disputes Tribunal.

Occupational Licensing and Professional Disciplinary Tribunals

These bodies deal with providing licences for certain kinds of professionals and reviewing their behaviour. They include the Building Practitioners Board and the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.

Differences Between Courts and Tribunals

While similar, courts and tribunals offer different avenues for individuals seeking solutions for their legal issues. This spread allows all individuals to receive help and not place undue pressure on one legal avenue. The table below sets out key differences between these two entities.



  • operate in a hierarchy, with some specialisation at lower levels;
  • make decisions on key legal issues with a wider general spread;
  • are a formalised system that follow an established presentation structure;
  • can often take a long and costly time for resolution;
  • have a decision-maker that is a judge or jury;
  • of the higher levels hear more high stakes cases, with no monetary limits; and
  • use investigation, but rely more on the most compelling arguments that both sides of a case can make.
  • have dedicated authorities for specific areas, ranging from civil disputes to professional licensing;
  • can involve more specialised technical expertise;
  • are typically more informal, with many not requiring legal representation;
  • can achieve resolution faster and more cheaply;
  • use a decision-maker that is not a judge or jury, and may only exist as a mediator between individuals in some cases;
  • may have monetary limits on the cases they will hear, and typically involve lesser claims that may then go to court later; and
  • involve more of an investigation and information examination.

Key Takeaways

Both courts and tribunals use evidence to make a decision on various legal issues. However, tribunals can offer more informal and specialised avenues for disputes. Courts, on the other hand, can hear a wider variety of cases, as well as more serious ones in some situations. If you would like more information or help with going to court or a tribunal, contact LegalVision’s disputes and litigation lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a court?

The court system in New Zealand provides a place where a judge or jury hears the facts of a case and makes a decision based on the arguments presented by different parties. This can apply to a variety of situations, ranging from civil disputes to criminal offences.

What is a tribunal?

A tribunal is similar to a court but is often more informal and less expensive to go to. A tribunal may only hear cases of a certain kind and deal with more specialised content matters. Examples of tribunals include the Disputes Tribunal and the Waitangi Tribunal.

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