New Zealand has a substantial judiciary of approximately 200 judges. It is the function of the judges to say what the law is in any given case.
The judges are independent from the executive government (government ministers) and they are not answerable to it. Their independence is strongly protected by the Constitution Act 1986. The separation of powers between Parliament and the judiciary is an important protection for liberty and the rule of law. The Constitution Act prevents the salary of judges being reduced while they are in office and makes it very difficult for them to be removed from office.
Removal of judges
The Constitution Act 1986 provides: ‘A Judge of the High Court shall not be removed from office except by the Sovereign or the Governor-General, acting upon an address of the House of Representatives, which address may be moved only on the grounds of that Judge’s misbehaviour or of that Judge’s incapacity to discharge the functions of that Judge’s office.’
Pay and expenses for the judiciary are determined by the Remuneration Authority, an independent statutory agency. Complaints about judges are dealt with under the Judicial Conduct Commissioner and Judicial Conduct Panel Act 2004.
Structure of the judiciary
The head of the judiciary in New Zealand is the chief justice, who presides over the Supreme Court of five judges. The president of the Court of Appeal presides over the Court of Appeal, and there is a chief High Court judge and a chief District Court judge. In the High Court there are 35 judges and nine associate judges. There are more than 140 District Court judges. Judges are appointed by the governor-general on the recommendation of the attorney general.
Justices of the peace and community magistrates also sit in the District Court, dealing with minor offences and remands.
Attorney general and solicitor general
The attorney general and the solicitor general are the principal law officers of the Crown and responsible for many aspects of law, including providing legal advice to the Crown.
The attorney general in New Zealand is always a government minister, and therefore a member of Parliament and almost invariably a member of the cabinet. He or she has important responsibilities for the legal system, the rule of law and its integrity. The attorney general is titular head of the legal profession.
The solicitor general is a professional lawyer selected for the position on the basis of his or her legal knowledge, and heads the Crown Law Office, a government department which undertakes legal work for the government.