Legal system

New Zealanders have the protection of a strong and independent system of justice that is highly regarded worldwide.

In fact, in 2015, the World Bank ranked New Zealand second after Singapore on its 189-nation ‘Doing Business’ rankings of how conducive the regulatory environment is to operating a local business. Also in 2015, the World Justice Project ranked us sixth out of 102 countries for the quality of our legal system - ahead of Australia, Canada and the UK. In December 2014, Forbes rated us third Best Country for Business (behind Denmark and Hong Kong) for reasons that included personal freedom and investor protection, as well as a lack of red tape and low corruption. 

For information on getting help with legal matters, check our Getting legal help page.

Getting legal help

Independent judges

Judges in New Zealand are not elected into their role. They are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Attorney-General, who is a Cabinet Member in the government. The Attorney-General consults widely before appointing judges, particularly seeking the opinion of the legal profession.

Judges are expected to act independently. Judges in the three highest general courts may not be removed from office or have their salaries cut, further protecting the independence of the judiciary.

Only lawyers may be appointed judges, and only after they’ve held a practising certificate for at least seven years.

General and specialist courts

Most legal issues are dealt with by ‘courts of general jurisdiction’. These courts decide criminal and civil matters. Criminal matters are offences usually involving the police that result in imprisonment or other penalties. Civil matters usually involve disputes, such as a breach of contract, defamation or claims for damages.

There are also a number of specialist courts dealing with employment matters, family issues, youth offending etc.

Four levels of general courts

The courts of general jurisdiction have four levels.

The ‘entry level’ for most civil and criminal matters is a District Court. New Zealand currently has 57 District Courts throughout the country.

The next level up is the High Court. There are 40 High Court judges, including the Chief Judge of the High Court. From their bases in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, these judges travel on a circuit to 14 centres across New Zealand.

The High Court deals with major crimes and the more significant civil claims. It also hears appeals from lower courts and specialist tribunals.

At the next level is the Appeal Court. It hears civil and criminal appeals from the High Court, the District Court and the Employment Court. The Appeal Court determines the law of New Zealand and resolves conflicting court decisions.

The ‘court of final appeal’ in New Zealand is the Supreme Court. It hears appeals in both civil and criminal cases, although they must be of public or legal significance to reach this level.

The Supreme Court was established in 2004 to replace the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and to reinforce New Zealand’s status as an independent nation with its own history and traditions.

Specialist courts

New Zealand also has a number of specialist courts.

  • The Employment Court deals with labour relations.
  • Family Courts deal with child custody, parental access, divorce, adoption, protection orders and the care and protection of children.
  • Youth Courts deal with offences committed by young people (older than 12 but younger than 17).
  • The Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court deal with Māori land matters.
  • The Environment Court deals with resource management, planning and development matters.

There are also over 100 tribunals, authorities, boards and committees. These deal with a wide range of disputes involving issues such as censorship, taxation, tenancy and employment.

Some of the better known ones are the Employment, Disputes, Tenancy and Treaty of Waitangi Tribunals.

Justices of the Peace

There may be situations where you are required to have a document witnessed by a ‘Justice of the Peace’ (JP). This is usually required when you are completing statutory declarations, wills or insurance claims. You may require a JP signature as a part of an Immigration New Zealand visa application.

JPs are laypeople (ie. not lawyers) who are well-respected in the community. They are nominated by Members of Parliament and appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. There are about 7,000 JPs in New Zealand.

As well as witnessing documents, JPs are involved in a number of matters within the community and the courts. In the District Court, suitably trained JPs carry out functions such as adjudicating minor criminal and traffic charges. They can also grant search warrants.

JPs are listed in the Yellow Pages under ‘Justices of the Peace’. There’s also an online directory you can use to search for a JP who lives in your area, or one who understands your language.

Find a JP | Royal Federation of New Zealand Justices' Associations


In New Zealand, juries are generally only used for criminal cases, and only for more serious charges. The only civil cases in which juries are commonly used are defamation.

Juries are made up of people (usually 12 people) between the ages of 20 and 65 drawn at random from the Electoral Roll.

Every citizen or resident in New Zealand must register on the electoral roll, and if you are in the age bracket, you may be selected to serve as a juror.

You can ask to be excused from jury service if you have a good reason, such as undue hardship, personal beliefs, permanent disability or if you’ve served on a jury within the last two years.

Employers are not required to pay employees while they are serving on a jury (though many do). However employers can’t dismiss anyone for being away on jury service.

Office of the Ombudsman

If you have a problem with a local or central government agency or want to request official information, the Office of the Ombudsman may be able to help.

The Office is an independent parliamentary authority that handles complaints against government agencies and undertakes investigations and inspections.

There is no cost for taking a complaint or application to the Ombudsman.

Ombudsman | Office of the Ombudsman

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Page last updated: 30/08/2016

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