The High Court was, until 1980, constituted as the Supreme Court, which was established in 1841 as New Zealand’s first superior court. The High Court exercises original and appellate jurisdiction. Its original jurisdiction includes civil claims exceeding the monetary limit of district courts ($200,000) and criminal proceedings involving the most serious indictable offences. Under its appellate jurisdiction, the High Court can hear and decide appeals in civil and criminal cases heard in the district courts, including cases heard in its specialist divisions (the Family Court and Youth Courts). Appeal is as of right and is by way of rehearing. The court also exercises jurisdiction derived from the common law and equity courts in England. The court may:
- grant protection of the court for children and persons of unsound mind
- punish for contempt of court
- grant bail
- discipline officers of the court (including counsel)
- ensure compliance with the law.
The chief justice and a maximum of 55 judges comprise the High Court. The court is constituted by a judge sitting alone, although it may sit as a full court of two or more judges. Judges of the High Court may be assigned, from time to time, to sit in criminal or civil divisions of the Court of Appeal.
District courts discharge the bulk of the judicial workload. Their predecessors were magistrates’ courts, which were reconstituted as district courts in 1980. In 2011 there were 63 district courts located throughout New Zealand, with provision for the appointment of up to 156 judges of the court. The number of district court judges is increased periodically to accommodate judicial workloads. A judge sitting alone constitutes the court.
District courts exercise an extensive criminal jurisdiction. They hear over 95% of all criminal trials, including jury trials on all but the most serious matters. In addition, district courts have jurisdiction over civil claims up to a monetary limit of $200,000. They also exercise limited appellate jurisdiction over disputes tribunals and other administrative bodies such as the Tenancy Tribunal.
The judicial system includes a range of inferior courts exercising specialist jurisdictions. These courts include: the Coroners Court, the Court Martial of New Zealand, the Employment Court, the Environment Court, the Family Court, the Māori Land Court, the Māori Appellate Court, and the Youth Court. The Youth Court and the Family Court are not strictly separate courts but are divisions of the District Court. The specialist courts exercise defined statutory jurisdiction and may be reviewed in the High Court if they exceed their powers or breach the principles of natural justice. These principles import the duty of fairness, which conveys the right to an impartial decision and the right to be heard.