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Citizens' Advice Bureau



Delivering justice

By Catriona McLennan, a lawyer with the Community Law Office in Mangere, Auckland.

Common and statute law
Adversarial courts
Rights under the law
Hierarchy of courts
Privy Council
Court of Appeal
High Court
District Court
Other Courts

The law is a set of rules to enable our society to function. Everyone has rights and responsibilities set out in the law so we know what we are, or are not, allowed to do.

Common and statute law

In New Zealand, there are two types of law – common and statute. Common law is created by judges when deciding cases. Statute law is written by Parliament. It is set out in legislation such as the Consumer Protection Act.

Adversarial courts

New Zealand follows the tradition of adversarial courtrooms. This means that two sides, prosecution and defence, each present their story of events. Judges and juries determine whether a case has been proved to the required legal standard based on the evidence and arguments of each side.

The adversarial system can be contrasted with the inquisitorial system, which involves a panel of judges conducting its own investigations and taking a more active role than in adversarial courts.


Juries play an important part in our legal system. You have the right to have your case heard by a jury when penalties include more than three months in prison.

Juries consist of twelve members of the public, selected from the electoral roll. They hear the evidence in court and then agree on a verdict, which must be unanimous. The judge decides what sentence to impose.

Rights under the law

New Zealand law protects individuals against mistreatment by the law. Our basic rights are set out explicitly in the Bill of Rights Act.

One set of rights is associated with personal freedoms. They include freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Further rights include the right to free movement, association and peaceful assembly.
Another important group of rights deals with protections under criminal law. These protect the individual from unreasonable search and seizure and arbitrary detention. They require that individuals be informed of the reason for detention; that they may get legal advice; and that they do not have to answer questions.

Hierarchy of courts

New Zealand’s courts are structured in a hierarchy. This means there is no confusion about jurisdiction, and that rules of precedent are clear – a consistent approach will be taken to similar cases. The decisions of higher courts are binding on lower courts.

Privy Council

New Zealand’s highest court is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which sits in London.

The Government is proposing to abolish the right of appeal to the Privy Council. It plans to create a new Supreme Court of New Zealand which will begin sitting in 2004 and will have expanded powers to hear appeals in employment, environment and family court matters.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is at present the highest court sitting in New Zealand. It deals only with appeals from lower courts.

It comprises seven permanent judges, and temporarily appoints judges as necessary. The Court has a Criminal Appeal Division which hears criminal appeals. Only cases which deal with significant legal issues, issues of public importance or other special circumstances are heard by the full Court of Appeal.

High Court

The High Court deals with major criminal and civil cases. It possesses inherent jurisdiction, meaning that it has all the powers required to administer justice in New Zealand, even if the powers have not been specifically conferred by statute.

District Court

The District Court deals with the majority of criminal cases, and civil cases involving amounts up to $200,000.

Smaller cases are dealt with by tribunals such as the Disputes Tribunal and Residential Tenancies Tribunal. Tribunals aim to provide speedy and less expensive means of resolving disputes.

Other Courts

Some areas of law require special expertise and separate courts to deal more effectively with disputes. Examples are the Family Court, Environment Court and the Employment Court.

The Family Court seeks to resolve cases with as much input from the parties as possible and as quickly as possible. It places heavy emphasis on alternative methods of resolving disputes, such as counselling and mediation.
In employment matters, almost all cases now go to mediation before proceeding to more formal processes.




Photo of Dunedin's High Court building.

Dunedin's High Court



Everyone has rights and responsibilities set out in the law so we know what we are, or are not, allowed to do.