Chapter 2 - The present New Zealand courts


High Court

What is now the High Court was established in 1841.30 It is a single court of general jurisdiction which sits in 19 centres around New Zealand. As noted earlier, its jurisdiction is confirmed in section 16 of the Judicature Act 1908.

The High Court deals with the most serious types of criminal offences before a judge and jury, and can impose sentence in summary (judge alone) cases where a District Court considers that a penalty is warranted that exceeds the District Courts’ jurisdiction. It also hears appeals from summary cases.

The court has virtually unlimited jurisdiction in civil cases, but generally deals only with those civil claims that exceed the jurisdiction of the District Courts or other courts and tribunals, or where particularly complex issues are involved. It has specific statutory jurisdiction under a number of Acts dealing with matters such as admiralty, company law, bankruptcy, the administration of estates and trusts, property transfer and land valuation.

The court also has “inherent” jurisdiction. This has been described as a reserve or fund of powers or a residual source of powers which the court may draw upon as necessary whenever it is just or equitable to do so.31 The inherent jurisdiction allows the court to deal with questions that cannot be dealt with in a satisfactory manner using only the powers conferred by statute or the rules of court, and ensures that parties are able to find a resolution to their disputes according to law. These powers are affirmed by section 16 of the Judicature Act 1908. The High Court is the only New Zealand court that has inherent jurisdiction.32

The High Court has a supervisory role, being responsible for ensuring the legality of public sector conduct through judicial review and for most appeals from the District Courts and some tribunals. Rights of appeal to the High Court exist against the decisions of District, Family, Youth and Environment Courts and numerous administrative tribunals and regulatory bodies. Decisions of the High Court are binding on all lower courts until overruled by the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court.

At present, there are 35 High Court judges, including the Chief High Court Judge, and nine associate judges.33 The High Court disposed of 1074 criminal and civil cases, and 1094 appeals, in the 12 months to 30 June 2011.34

It was known as the Supreme Court until it was renamed the High Court on 1 April 1980: Judicature Amendment Act 1979, s 2.

IH Jacob “The Inherent Jurisdiction of the Court” (1970) Current Legal Problems 23 at 51.

Although all courts do possess inherent powers, which enable them to do what is necessary to exercise their statutory functions, powers and duties, and to control their own processes: McMenamin v Attorney-General [1985] 2 NZLR 274 (CA).

There are a further three warranted High Court judges who are not sitting at present while they undertake other roles.

Courts of New Zealand “Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court – workload statistics” < >. These figures comprise 211 criminal cases, 863 civil cases, 269 civil appeals and 825 criminal appeals.