Different New Zealand courts – how do they work?

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New Zealand courts conduct more than 1,600 criminal trials a year and hear more than 1,000 civil cases between individuals or individuals and the Government.

New Zealand courts have a wide variety of functions that can influence virtually all aspects of life. They include:

  • enforcing the criminal law,
  • resolving civil disputes amongst citizens,
  • upholding the rights of the individual,
  • ensuring that government agencies stay within the law,
  • and explaining the law.

Below is a brief outline of the different courts and tribunals in New Zealand.

New Zealand Courts

New Zealand has four primary courts, which are:

  • Te Kōti ā Rohe, the District Court  – Most large towns and cities have a District Court.  It is the busiest court.  The Family Court and Youth Court are part of the District Court. Most criminal cases are heard in the District Court, where civil cases of less than $350,000 at dispute are also heard.
  • Te Kōti Matua, the High Court – This is the next level in our court system and is the highest court where cases can start. It is the highest court in which cases can start.  The most serious criminal and civil cases, where the amount in dispute is $350,000 or more, are heard in the High Court and decided by a jury.

    The High Court also hears complex civil and administrative law cases, and appeals from the decisions of courts and tribunals below it. If one of the parties is not satisfied with the result of a court case, then that case can be appealed to a higher court. Cases in the District Court are appealed to the High Court or where the law allows the appeal to be directly managed to the Court of Appeal.
  • Te Kōti Pīra, the Court of Appeal – This is an appeal court that has a key role in developing legal principle, correcting errors, and ensuring that the law is applied consistently. Civil and criminal appeals from the High Court, as well as criminal appeals from the District Court are heard here.
  • Te Kōti Mana Nui, the Supreme Court  – This is the highest and final court, and only manages cases when the Supreme Court judge grants leave to appeal.

    The criteria for granting leave to appeal are set out in the Senior Courts Act 2016 section 74. The Supreme Court can agree to hear an appeal only where it involves:
    – a matter of general importance,
    – a matter of general commercial significance,
    – or a significant issue relating to the Treaty of Waitangi,
    – or where a substantial miscarriage of justice may have occurred.

    A decision made by the Supreme Court and the final Court of Appeal are binding on all other courts.

Specialist Courts

New Zealand’s court system also includes a range of specialist courts, which are:

  • The Employment Court – hears and determines cases relating to employment disputes. These include challenges to determinations of the Employment Relations Authority, questions of interpretation of the law, and disputes over strikes and lockouts.
  • The Environment Court – most of the Environment Court’s work involved the Resource Management Act 1991. The Court largely deals with appeals about the contents of regional and district plans and appeals arising out of applications for resource consents.
  • The Family Court – is a division of the District Court. The Family Court provides New Zealand families with support when relationship disputes arise. Many relationship difficulties are heard, from matters regarding unborn children to elderly individuals that require care and protection.
  • Māori Land Court – if you own or have an interest in Māori land, this Court is a judicial forum through which you can interact with other owners or interested parties about the current and future use, ownership, occupation, and management of Māori land.
  • Youth Court – this court is a specialist division of the District Court. Young people aged between 14 and 18 who commit offences will be directed to a Youth Court rather than the District or High Court. This court will handle all matters regarding youth crime, except for murder, manslaughter, and traffic offenses.
  • Coroners Court – This court handles all matters that involve the unexpected, violent, or suspicious circumstances of a death. The Coroners Court consists of the Chief Coroner and up to 20 coroners that investigate how, when, and where the death occurred.
  • Courts Martial Appeal Court – this Court deals with emergency situations.


There are also specialist tribunals in our court system, which are: 

  • The Disputes Tribunal –  Formerly known as the ‘small claims court’ this court handles disputes that are less than $30,000.
  • The Waitangi Tribunal – makes recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to Crown actions that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.
  • The Tenancy Tribunal – can help settle disputes between tenants and landlords, and disputes about unit titles.
  • The Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal – deals with disputes between consumers and motor vehicle traders (but not private sales).
  • Human Rights Review Tribunal – reviews decisions by the Human Rights Commission, Privacy Commissioner, and Disability Commissioner.
  • Real Estate Agents Tribunal  – deals with the licencing and disciplining of licenced real estate agents.
  • The Canterbury Earthquakes Insurance Tribunal  – provides Canterbury homeowners with a fair, speedy, flexible, and cost-effective way to resolve their long-standing claims with insurers (including Southern Response and EQC).
  • The Copyright Tribunal  – hears disputes about copyright licencing agreements and applications about illegal uploading and downloading of copyrighted work.
  • The Immigration & Protection Tribunal – hears appeals on resident visas, deportation, and refugee or protected person claims.
  • The Immigration Advisers Complaints & Disciplinary Tribunal – deals with complaints against licenced immigration advisers.
  • The Land Valuation Tribunal – deals with objections to property valuations.
  • The Lawyers & Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal – hears and determines disciplinary charges against lawyers and conveyancers.
  • The Legal Aid Tribunal – reviews decisions by the Legal Services Commissioner about who gets legal aid.
  • Trans-Tasman Occupations Tribunal – if you disagree with the decision of an occupation registration authority, you can apply to the Trans-Tasman Occupations Tribunal for a review.
  • Weathertight Homes Tribunal – owners of leaky buildings who can’t come to a resolution with the builder can apply to the Weathertight Homes Tribunal for help.
  • The Accident Compensation Appeals District Court Registry  – hears appeals made under the Accident Compensation Act 2001. Appeals are heard by a District Court judge.

The team at Shine Lawyers are experts in navigating the full system of New Zealand courts and helping you stand up for your legal rights.

Contact us today for a no-obligation consultation.

Blog by Alyssa Jones, Law Clerk, Shine Lawyers

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