The hierarchy of courts
New Zealand’s courts, in descending order of hierarchy, are the Supreme Court of New Zealand, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Courts Martial Appeal Authority, the District Court and various specialist courts.
New Zealand courts are staffed and serviced by the Ministry of Justice. Judgments are enforced under the rules of the various courts. People who do not obey court orders are subject to serious sanctions under the law of contempt of court.
Traditional English legal attire, including gowns and wigs, was simplified in 1996 at the instigation of the then chief justice, Thomas Eichelbaum. From then judges wore gowns in the District Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, but lawyers wore gowns only in the latter two courts, and wigs only on ceremonial occasions. A move in 2010 to reintroduce wearing of gowns in district courts divided the legal profession. Robert Lithgow, a Wellington QC, argued that gowns, scarlet robes, wigs and white gloves belonged ‘in the dress-up box’ and had no place in an egalitarian society such as New Zealand.1
In addition to courts, New Zealand has many tribunals where justice is dispensed. Tribunals tend to be quicker, cheaper and more user-friendly than courts. There are more than 100 bodies established by legislation in New Zealand that might be considered to be tribunals. Many of them play an important role in delivering justice.
Tribunals range from the Land Valuation Tribunal, the Copyright Tribunal and the Human Rights Review Tribunal, to the War Pensions Appeal Board, the Teachers Complaints Disciplinary Tribunal, the Tenancy Tribunals and the Disputes Tribunal. Some of these tribunals are presided over by judges, but many of them by lawyers appointed for the purpose and some by lay people.
In the early 2000s it was suggested that there was a need to rationalise the structure and pattern of tribunals. Reform had been called for over a period of many years.
Legal aid for people who could not otherwise afford legal services is available in New Zealand and covers both criminal and civil cases. In the early 2000s rules around legal aid were tightened. The Legal Services Act 2011 aimed to promote access to justice by delivering legal aid in a more effective manner. The act set out in detail what proceedings were eligible and how much could be paid. The act also set up a public defender system, which aimed to provide some competition to private lawyers, and to help keep control over the costs of the system.
The procedure of the general courts in criminal matters is governed by the Criminal Procedure Act 2011. This was the biggest reform since 1961 in how the courts dealt with criminal cases.
Civil procedure is governed by the District Courts Act 1947 and Judicature Act 1908, and the rules made under those acts. In 2012 the Judicature Act was under review by the Law Commission.
In the early 2000s there was a drop-off in the number of civil cases in the courts. Causes of this included high filing fees to cover the expenses of the government in supporting the courts, the costs of using lawyers, the increased use of alternative dispute resolution techniques and economic conditions.