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Almost everyone will have heard of ‘the courts’ and know that the courts are where judges sit and cases are held. However, understanding how the court system works in New Zealand is a great deal more complicated. Understanding the basics of the judicial system and what it means for your business is well worth your time, particularly if there is a dispute or potential case that may mean you need to interact firsthand with the courts.

This article will: 

  • set out the fundamentals of the court system and how they work; and
  • explain the hierarchy of different courts, how they fit in with each other, and the relevance for businesses. 

Understanding the Court System

The courts are one of the three branches of New Zealand’s government. The courts work independently of the legislature (parliament) and the executive (cabinet ministers and government departments).

There can be a lot of confusion about the relationship between the courts and the government. In essence, they are separate entities.

The courts can hold the government to account when the government steps out of line in some way. While the government plays a part in choosing new judges, this is an apolitical process also involving the judiciary (the judges in the senior courts).

An important aspect of the court system is the independence of judges. As you may know, judges oversee most courts and tribunals in New Zealand. However, judges are independent from each other, just like the courts are independent from the government. 

Judges usually make their decisions by themselves, without direction or supervision from other judges. The fundamental idea is that judges cannot be influenced by other parts of the government, even including other judges. 

What Do Courts Do?

Courts resolve a number of different disputes and uphold all areas of law in New Zealand. This includes: 

  • enforcing the criminal law; 
  • resolving civil disputes amongst citizens; 
  • defending the rights of the individual; and 
  • ensuring that government agencies stay within the law.

The latter refers to an idea called ‘the rule of law’. This is the principle that everyone, including the government, is bound by the laws of the land. 

Another important aspect of the court system is that the courts themselves are accountable. Judges must publish their decisions and reasoning in each case, and this can almost always be appealed to more senior courts. A senior court can ‘overturn’ a lower court’s judgment if they think it was incorrect. If your business loses a case in a lower court that you think is unreasonable (or that your lawyers advise you did not have a strong basis of law), then you can ‘appeal’ it to a higher court for a second review.

The Hierarchy of Courts and How They Work

In terms of what a ‘senior court’ is and what a ‘lower court’ is for the purpose of appeals and overturning judgments, there is a hierarchy of courts in New Zealand. This hierarchy includes four main levels.

The District Court

The first level is the District Court, the busiest court in the country and the one that hears the most cases. Most large towns and cities have a District Court. The District Court also includes the Family Court and Youth Court for certain cases. Most criminal cases are heard in the District Court, as well as civil cases for claims of less than $350,000. Your business will probably interact with the District Court the most, particularly for small claims, like chasing up debtors who refuse to pay.

The High Court

The next most senior court is the High Court. This court hears the most serious criminal and civil cases (where the claim in dispute is $350,000 or more). Most of the criminal cases in the High Court are decided by juries. Appeals from the District Court are also overseen in the High Court.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is the third ‘level’ in the hierarchy. It is an ‘appeals’ court that only hears appeals from the High Court and some District Court appeals. It has a key role in: 

  • developing legal principles;
  • correcting errors; and 
  • ensuring that the law is applied consistently. 

The Supreme Court 

The Supreme Court is the highest and final court in New Zealand. It will agree to take a case where it involves a matter of national importance or where a substantial miscarriage of justice may have occurred. It would be a rare occasion for your business to find itself in the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, but it does happen from time to time. Usually, you can resolve commercial disputes in lower courts.

Key Takeaways

New Zealand’s court system is independent from the government and oversees all areas of law and legal disputes in New Zealand. Your business is most likely to interact with the District Court and High Court. The District Court will only deal with commercial claims of less than $350,000, meaning that extremely large commercial disputes will have to go to the High Court. There is a strong appeals system in New Zealand, which means that you can appeal the decision of a court if you think it is unreasonable or lacks a good legal basis. If you want to know more about how New Zealand’s court system works, contact LegalVision’s disputes and litigation lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the courts independent from the government?

Yes, they are. Constitutionally, the courts are a separate and independent entity. Although the government does play a role in appointing judges from time to time, this is an apolitical process in New Zealand. 

How does the hierarchy of courts work?

There are approximate ‘tiers’ of seniority in the courts in New Zealand. A decision of a so-called ‘higher court’, such as the Supreme Court (the most senior court in New Zealand) is binding on so-called ‘lower courts’ such as the District Court. There are also specialist courts, such as the Environment Court or Employment Court, that have specialised jurisdictions (environment issues and employment issues, respectively). 

What courts are most relevant for businesses to know about?

Most cases in New Zealand are heard in the District Court. The High Court is also relevant for businesses, particularly if there is a commercial dispute involving $350,000 or more. 

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