Story: Judicial system

Despite having its own courts since 1840, New Zealand’s judicial system didn’t become entirely independent until 2003, when the Supreme Court replaced the British Privy Council as New Zealand’s court of final appeal.

Story by Philip A. Joseph and Thomas Joseph
Main image: Judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and High Court in ceremonial attire

Story summary

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The judicial system is made up of courts, some of which have more power than others. Courts resolve conflicts between people, or between people and the state. Court judges base their rulings on written law (legislation) and common law – law that developed from previous judges’ decisions.

History of courts in New Zealand

New Zealand’s first courts were established in 1840. The Supreme Court, which is what the High Court was known as until 1980, was founded in 1841. There were various lower courts, including magistrates’ courts, which continued until 1980, when they were renamed ‘district courts’ and given wider responsibility.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in New Zealand. It is an appeal court, which means that it rules on cases that have been first heard in a lower court. Before the Supreme Court was founded in 2003, the Privy Council, a court in London, was New Zealand’s court of final appeal. In the Supreme Court usually five judges will hear each case, and the chief justice presides (leads). Other lower courts have to follow the Supreme Court’s decisions.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal is also an appeal court. Between three and five judges sit on each case, depending on its public importance.

The High Court

The High Court can hear both original cases (cases in court for the first time) and appeals from lower courts.

The District Court and specialist courts

The district courts hear more than 95% of all criminal trials. There are 63 district courts located throughout New Zealand. The Youth Court and the Family Court are both part of the District Court. Other specialist courts include:

  • the Employment Court
  • the Environment Court
  • the Māori Land Court
  • the Māori Appellate Court
  • the Coroners Court
  • military courts.


Court judges are appointed by the governor-general, on advice from specific government ministers.

For the judicial system to be fair, it is important for judges to be independent from political interference. To ensure this, they have ‘security of tenure’, which means they can only be removed from their jobs for misconduct, and their pay cannot be reduced.

How to cite this page:

Philip A. Joseph and Thomas Joseph, 'Judicial system', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Philip A. Joseph and Thomas Joseph, published 20 June 2012, updated 11 October 2016