Chapter 6 - The District Courts

A single national District Court?

The New Zealand District Courts have evolved as if there is a single national District Court. However, as we discussed in chapter 2, that is not the way the courts are formally constituted under the District Courts Act 1947. Each of the 63 District Courts is a separate entity. The Governor-General is empowered to appoint places from time to time in which District Courts may be held for the exercise of their civil and criminal jurisdiction, or to deal with a specified class of matters.118 Each District Court has its own staff, and its own seal.

Two cases illustrate the conceptual difference between one court and many. In Johnson v Allen, a judgment prepared for sealing was headed “In the District Court at Hawera”, but was signed by the Deputy Registrar of the District Court at New Plymouth, and impressed with the seal of the New Plymouth court.119 The High Court held that the Deputy Registrar had no jurisdiction or authority to seal a proceeding which was then in another District Court, and that the seal of the Hawera court should have been applied. As a result, the judgment had not been properly sealed and a notice of appeal from the judgment had therefore not been validly filed and served.

In Serious Fraud Office v Anderson, three defendants were charged with conspiracy to defraud various lenders of finance.120 Informations were laid in the Christchurch District Court, and the Serious Fraud Office subsequently applied to the Auckland District Court for warrants to arrest the defendants so that an application to extradite them from Brisbane could be made. The Court declined the application for warrants to arrest, on the basis that the District Court at Auckland had no power or jurisdiction to receive and determine an application for an arrest warrant to bring before the District Court at Christchurch persons charged in that court but who were abroad, not having been served with summonses. It noted that the District Court was not one court, but many, served by a common bench of judges.

 

Having described the separate constitution of each District Court, the Judge noted:121

There are obvious, indeed compelling, practical reasons why the law has long been thus. The District Court is a Court of record. Despite modern electronic means of communication (which all too often prove unreliable when they are most needed) it is extremely important that a Court have before it a complete file in relation to a case. In some circumstances, such as the need to bring in an arrested person before a Court as soon as practicable, that general approach must give way to other considerations. But, subject to that type of situation, the desirability of all aspects of a criminal proceeding, whether in the summary jurisdiction or in the preliminary hearing context or in the jury trial context, being contained within one file held and administered at one place is compelling. It avoids forum shopping – at least on a national basis – as well as those disasters which inevitably arise from having a multitude of cooks simultaneously endeavouring to prepare the one dish. It recognises the separate nature of each District Court.

The question is whether the practical reasons described for the District Courts being separate entities are outweighed by the problems it has the potential to create.

Some steps have already been taken to try to reduce the practical problems caused by the separate status of the courts. In 2011, the District Courts Act 1947 was amended to provide that a person appointed as a registrar may exercise the powers and perform the functions and duties of the registrar of any District Court.122 The powers of deputy registrars and bailiffs and deputy bailiffs were similarly extended.

In legislative terms, it would be a relatively easy task to incorporate the District Courts into a single national court. We note that the High Court operates as a single national court, despite sitting in 18 centres (a 19th centre, Masterton, is a filing-only registry).

This development would not have any adverse implications as to the allocation of cases and files between courthouses. Presently, the allocation of the proper District Court is governed by Rule 3.1 of the District Court Rules 2009. This regime is substantially similar to that contained in Rule 5.1 of the High Court Rules – and could apply to a nationally constituted District Court with little or no amendment.

Provisions relating to the appointment of registrars and other court officials would need to be amended to provide that they are appointed to the national court. A similar provision appears in the Judicature Act 1908 in respect of registrars of the High Court. A provision along the lines of section 50 of the Judicature Act 1908 could provide for each registrar to have custody of a seal of the single national District Court.

Constituting the District Courts as a single national court would also be consistent with the proposed new operating model for the District Courts in Auckland (namely North Shore, Warkworth, Auckland, Waitakere, Manukau, Papakura, and Pukekohe).123  In a discussion document, the Ministry of Justice noted that the current operating model in the District Courts in Auckland lacks consistency: “each court operates independently and, as a result, operating structures and processes differ across registries and jurisdictions. For customers this means that the quality of service varies across courts.”124

The Ministry proposes replacing this fragmented approach with an integrated approach to resource deployment, reorganising resources so they are shared across sites. The Auckland regional service delivery model for civil and family matters took effect from the end of January 2012.

In our view, the degree of integration and centralised management involved in the proposed new operating model is consistent with – and indeed might sit more comfortably within – a single national District Court.

We note that any move to a single national District Court will have a flow-on effect in terms of the Family Courts and the Youth Courts. At present, these are established by sections that provide that each District Court shall have a division to be known as a Youth Court/Family Court.125 Thus there are multiple Youth Courts and Family Courts. If there was a single District Court, logically there would be a single Family Court and a single Youth Court.

Q16

Should there be one unitary District Court for New Zealand?

Section 4.

Johnson v Allen (1999) 12 PRNZ 615.

Serious Fraud Office v Anderson [2000] DCR 435.

At 439.

Section 12(2A).

Ministry of Justice Discussion Document: Proposed new operating model for District Courts in Auckland (2011).

At 9.

Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, s 433; Family Courts Act 1980, s 4.