Story: Law

Page 2. New Zealand’s legal traditions

All images & media in this story

New Zealand has a strong commitment to the rule of law, coupled with deep and long legal traditions. It has a rich culture of the law, and the law is etched into the fabric of society in a way that causes little controversy and is broadly accepted by the community. New Zealand courts enjoy a reputation for fairness and impartiality.

The social value of law

The contribution that law can make to a community is best if it is taken for granted and can be relied upon. Law is essential to the good governance of any country.

The rule of law

A famous English judge, Lord Bingham, wrote in 2010 that the core of the rule of law is ‘that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.’1

Law is a method of adjusting relations and ordering human behaviour. It is complicated because it must cover most aspects of human life and activity.

The prime function of the law in New Zealand is to provide methods for settling disputes. It is often said that the courts are there to provide people with justice according to law.

Interpretation of law

Parliament passes the law, but judges interpret it. The statutes (written laws) are interpreted by judges in the courts, and statutory interpretation is a most important judicial function. The rules of interpretation were contained in the Interpretation Act 1999. This required judges to follow a fundamental rule: ‘The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose.’

The Bill of Rights

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 affirms fundamental rights and freedoms set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the Bill of Rights is not a superior law to which all other laws are subject, judges are required to interpret other statutes to be consistent with it if at all possible. In New Zealand the courts have not been given the power to declare acts of Parliament unconstitutional or strike them down.

  1. Tom Bingham, The rule of law. London: Allen Lane, 2010, p. 8. Back
How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Palmer, 'Law - New Zealand’s legal traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Geoffrey Palmer, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Oct 2016