New Zealand’s judiciary is independent and not elected. The Chief Justice and judges are appointed by the Governor-General. Lawyers who have held a practising certificate for at least seven years are eligible to be appointed as judges.
Courts of General Jurisdiction
New Zealand has four courts of general jurisdiction and these deal with criminal and civil matters. Criminal matters are offences that result in imprisonment or other penalties. Civil matters usually involve disputes, such as a breach of contract, defamation or claims for damages.
This is the highest court in New Zealand and it hears appeals in both civil and criminal cases. The Supreme Court’s role is to determine the law on issues of particular public or legal significance.
Court of Appeal
As its name suggests, the Court of Appeal hears civil and criminal appeals from the High Court, the District Court and the Employment Court. It determines the law of New Zealand and resolves conflicting court decisions.
The High Court is made up of the Chief Judge of the High Court and 39 other judges based in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. These judges travel on a circuit to 14 centres from Whangarei to Invercargill. The High Court deals with major crimes and the more significant civil claims. It also hears appeals from lower courts and tribunals.
New Zealand currently has 66 District Courts throughout the country which deal with a wide range of civil and criminal matters. Serious crimes can be transferred from the District Court to a High Court for trial.
In addition to the four courts of general jurisdiction, there are a number of specialist courts.
The Employment Court deals with labour relations.
Family Courts deal with matters such as custody, parental access, divorce, adoption, protection orders and the care and protection of children.
Youth Courts deal with offences committed by young people (older than 13 but younger than 17).
The Maori Land Court and Maori Appellate Court deal with matters relating to Maori land.
The Environment Court deals with resource management, planning and development matters.
There are more than 100 tribunals, authorities, boards and committees. These deal with a wide range of disputes involving issues such as censorship, taxation, tenancy and employment. Some of the better known ones are the Employment, Disputes, Tenancy and Treaty of Waitangi Tribunals.
Justices of the Peace
Justices of the Peace (JPs) are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. There are about 10,000 JPs in New Zealand and they are involved in a number of matters within the community and the courts. In the District Court, suitably trained Justices of the Peace carry out functions such as adjudicating minor criminal and traffic charges. In the community JPs witness documents such as statutory declarations, wills and insurance claims. They can also grant search warrants. JPs are listed in the Yellow Pages under ‘Justices of the Peace’.
Juries in New Zealand are selected at random from the Electoral Roll. If you are enrolled as an elector and aged between 20 and 65, you may be selected to perform this important service. On most occasions, you will be asked to hear a criminal case.
You can ask to be excused from jury service if you have a good reason, such as undue hardship, personal beliefs, permanent disability or if you have served on a jury within the last two years.
Getting legal help
If you need legal help, there are two types of lawyers who can help you. Barristers deal with court work; solicitors do other legal work that does not require them to represent their clients in court. Most lawyers are qualified as both but choose one or the other.
Lawyers must treat everything you tell them as confidential, they must provide independent advice and they must use their skill for your benefit. Most people will use a lawyer to:
- provide advice on legal rights
- check legal documents
- assist with immigration applications
- provide conveyancing services for purchasing properties and businesses
- prepare rental and lease agreements
- draft wills
- undertake divorce proceedings
- arrange redress in cases of fraud or misrepresentation
- provide representation in cases involving the Police.
- Lawyers are listed in the Yellow Pages under both ‘Lawyers’ and ‘Barristers & Solicitors’. Their fees vary widely. It is always advisable to ask about fees before commissioning any legal work.
Free legal help
Legal aid is available only for matters that you cannot resolve without a lawyer acting for you in court, or to help you settle a matter out of court. You cannot get legal aid for divorce, or if you only want to talk to a lawyer. The aid is subject to numerous restrictions and may have to be paid back at a later date. Information on legal aid is available from Citizens Advice Bureaux and Community Law Centres, District Courts and other agencies.
Office of the Ombudsman
In New Zealand, the Office of the Ombudsman is an independent agency. Its main function is to assist people with requests for official information, and complaints about local and central government agencies. There is no fee for making a complaint or an application to the Ombudsman.