Chapter 2 - The present New Zealand courts

District Courts

Although in New Zealand we often refer to the District Court in the singular, there are in fact 63 District Courts located throughout New Zealand. Each one is separately constituted under the District Courts Act 1947.11 The plurality of the District Courts is a matter we will discuss later in this Issues Paper.12

Courts of limited jurisdiction have administered justice in New Zealand since 1841. From 1893 until 1980 they were known as Magistrates’ Courts and the magistrate was “the law in the only form it was personally seen ... He dispensed justice at the grass roots and was the visible guarantee of peaceful and orderly community life.”13

By the mid-1970s there was distinct pressure to upgrade the status of Magistrates’ Courts and Stipendiary Magistrates to better reflect the extent and degree of responsibility they exercised in the New Zealand legal system.

In 1978, a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir David Beattie reviewed the history and structure of the Magistrates’ Courts and concluded that there was a need “to increase the respect for, and the responsibilities of, these courts” while at the same time allowing them “essentially to remain the people’s court”, so that all sections of the community should be able to access them without anxiety or mistrust, and with the minimum of fuss.14

The Royal Commission also addressed the need for a Family Court as a distinct division of the District Court with its own “judicial philosophy”, to cope with the changes that were taking place in society and family life in New Zealand. There was also concern over the need to increase the criminal jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Courts and to establish a better provision for small civil claims.

The recommendations of the Royal Commission were enacted in 1979. The Magistrates’ Courts were renamed as District Courts and Stipendiary Magistrates became District Court judges, empowered to conduct jury trials and impose sentence.

The District Courts are courts of general jurisdiction, hearing both civil and criminal proceedings. In terms of the civil jurisdiction, generally they can hear any civil matter where the amount in dispute is not more than $200,000.15

In their criminal jurisdiction, the District Courts conduct more than 95% of all criminal cases, and hold the vast majority of jury trials. They have exclusive jurisdiction over lower level charges and overlapping, or concurrent, jurisdiction with the High Court in relation to what are presently known as “middle band offences”.16  The only charges that cannot be heard by the District Courts are the most serious crimes, such as murder, manslaughter, treason, espionage and terrorism offences.17

In addition to their general jurisdiction, the District Courts have two specialist divisions, established by statute: the Family Court and Youth Court. Each division is headed by a Principal Judge who is responsible for ensuring the orderly and expeditious discharge of its business.18 Each Disputes Tribunal is also a division of the District Courts.19 Disputes Tribunals have limited civil jurisdiction for claims up to a value of $15,000.20  Finally, the District Courts also hear appeals from a number of specialist tribunals.

The District Courts are headed by the Chief District Court Judge. As at 16 December 2011, there were 149 District Court judges and 36 acting District Court judges. The District Courts disposed of 180,699 criminal cases and 916 defended civil cases in the 12 months to 30 June 2011.21

Family Courts

The Family Courts were established as divisions of the District Courts by the Family Courts Act 1980.22 Section 11 of the Act gives the courts jurisdiction for a wide variety of matters affecting couples, families and children. For example, the Family Courts deal with proceedings arising under the Property (Relationships) Act 1976, the Care of Children Act 2004 and the Adoption Act 1955.23

The Governor-General may, by warrant, appoint any District Court judge as a Family Court judge, provided that he or she is “by reason of … training, experience, and personality, a suitable person to deal with matters of family law”.24

In addition to their jurisdiction, Family Courts are distinguishable from the general District Courts because of their less formal proceedings, the limits placed on attendance at hearings and publication of proceedings, the emphasis on conciliation, and because of the supportive services that accompany the Courts, such as the appointment of counsellors and other related officers.

There are 58 Family Courts throughout New Zealand and 43 Family Court-warranted judges.25 The Family Court disposed of 66,015 substantive applications in the 12 months to 30 June 2011.26

Youth Courts

Youth Courts were established as divisions of the District Courts by the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989.27 A District Court judge may be designated as a Youth Court judge by the Chief District Court Judge provided that he or she is a suitable person to deal with matters within the jurisdiction of a Youth Court by virtue of training, experience, and personality and understanding of the significance and importance of different cultural perspectives and values.28

Youth Courts have jurisdiction over most prosecutions of children aged 12 to 16. Like the Family Courts, attendance at their hearings and publication of their proceedings are restricted.

The Youth Courts disposed of 5049 cases in the 12 months to 30 June 2011.29

District Courts Act 1947, s 3.

Chapter 6.

FR Macken “A Rose By Any Other Name” [1967] NZLJ 481 at 481.

Report of the Royal Commission on the Courts (1978) at [258].

District Courts Act 1947, s 29.

District Courts Act 1947, s 28A(1)(b) and (c) and Part 1 of Schedule 1A. These will be known as Category 2 and 3 offences once the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 comes into force.

District Courts Act 1947, s 28A(1)(b) and Part 2 of Schedule 1A. Once the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 comes into force, such “High Court-only” offences will be known as Category 4 offences – see Schedule 1 to the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 for a full list.

Children Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, s 434(7); Family Courts Act 1980, s 6(7).

Disputes Tribunals Act 1988, s 4.

Disputes Tribunals Act 1988, s 10. Where the parties agree, the value of claims before the Disputes Tribunals may be extended to $20,000: Disputes Tribunals Act 1988, s 13.

Courts of New Zealand “District Courts – workload statistics” < www.courtsofnz.govt.nz > and email from Kelly Laursen to Susan Hall regarding District Court and Youth Court disposal rates (14 November 2011). “Disposed of” means that the case reached a final outcome by any of the available means, including where a defendant was discharged, acquitted or convicted or where the case was stayed or not proceeded with, or, in civil cases, where a claim was withdrawn and where the parties settled the case.

Section 4.

In full, the courts deal with proceedings under the Adoption Act 1955, Adoption (Intercountry) Act 1997, Care of Children Act 2004, Children Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, Child Support Act 1991, Civil Union Act 2004, Domestic Actions Act 1975, Domestic Violence Act 1995, Family Courts Act 1980, Family Proceedings Act 1980, Family Protection Act 1955, Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act 2003, Law Reform (Testamentary Promises) Act 1949, Marriage Act 1955, Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, Property (Relationships) Act 1976, Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act 1988, and the Wills Act 2007.

Family Courts Act 1980, s 5.

Ministry of Justice “Quick facts – Family Court of New Zealand” < www.justice.govt.nz >.

Courts of New Zealand “District Courts – workload statistics” < www.courtsofnz.govt.nz >.

Section 433.

Section 435.

Courts of New Zealand “District Courts – workload statistics” < www.courtsofnz.govt.nz > and email from Kelly Laursen to Susan Hall regarding District Court and Youth Court disposal rates (14 November 2011).