Legal system

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

In fact, in 2018, the World Bank ranked New Zealand first out of 190 nations for ‘Ease of doing business’. This means our regulatory environment makes New Zealand the easiest country to start up and operate a business in. 

We also lead our region (East Asia and Pacific) on the World Justice Project 2017/18 'Rule of Law' index, which measures how the rule of law is experienced and perceived by the general public. New Zealand ranked 7th out of 113 countries, ahead of Australia (10th), Canada (9th) and the UK (11th).

In December 2017, for the third year running, Forbes rated New Zealand second out of 153 countries in their 'Best Country for Business 2018' rankings. We scored first overall for personal freedom, property rights, 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. To further protect the independence of the judiciary, Judges in the three highest general courts may not be removed from office or have their salaries cut.

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

Role of the judges | Courts New Zealand

The courts

New Zealand has general courts 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 that deal with things like employment matters, family issues and youth offending.

Four levels of general courts

The courts of general jurisdiction have four levels - District courts, High court, Appeal court and Supreme court.

  1. Most civil and criminal matters start off in a District Court. New Zealand currently has 58 District Courts throughout the country.
  2. The High Court deals with major crimes and the more significant civil claims. It also hears appeals from lower courts and specialist tribunals. There are 46 High Court judges, including 7 associate judges and the Chief Judge of the High Court. From their bases in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, these judges travel on a circuit to 16 other centres across New Zealand.
  3. The Appeal Court hears civil and criminal appeals from the High Court, District Courts and the Employment Court. It also determines the law of New Zealand and resolves conflicting court decisions.
  4. The Supreme Court is the 'court of final appeal’. 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.

We also have over 100 tribunals, authorities, boards and committees which deal with disputes involving issues like censorship, taxation, tenancy and employment.

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

The Courts | Courts of New Zealand

Tribunals | Ministry of Justice

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.

JPs are laypeople (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.

You may require a JP signature as a part of an Immigration New Zealand visa application.

What does a JP do?

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.

Finding a JP

There are about 7,000 JPs in New Zealand. You can find them listed in the Yellow Pages under ‘Justices of the Peace’.

You can also search the online directory to find one that lives in your area or who understands your language.

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

Juries

In New Zealand, juries are generally only used for more serious criminal cases. The only civil cases where juries are commonly used are defamation cases.

There are usually 12 people on a jury and they must be aged between 20 and 65.

Jury service

Jurors are drawn at random from the Electoral Roll.

Every citizen or resident in New Zealand must register on the electoral roll. So if you are in the right 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. Acceptable reasons include undue hardship, personal beliefs and permanent disability. You can also be excused if you have served on a jury within the last two years.
  • Employers are not required to pay employees while they are serving on a jury (although many do). However, the Court pays each juror a small fee to cover expences for attending Jury service.
  • Employers cannot dismiss anyone for being away on jury service.

Jury service | Ministry of Justice

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: 07/11/2018

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