The role of New Zealand's courts

What courts do

Courts have a wide variety of roles including enforcing criminal law, resolving civil disputes, upholding the rights of individuals, ensuring that government agencies stay within the law and explaining the law.

In resolving disputes, courts consider the evidence on all sides of the dispute, interpret the law as it applies to that evidence and then make a decision (judgment).

Courts are independent and impartial and the decisions of individual judges sitting in courts are subject only to law.

Courts settle legal disagreements between:

  • the Crown (the New Zealand government on behalf of the Queen) and individuals
  • groups of people or organisations
  • individuals.

New Zealand has a range of different courts that deal with both civil and criminal justice matters. Our courts are structured like a pyramid. At the top is the Supreme Court. Below it, in descending order, are the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the District Courts.

These courts have general jurisdiction, which means they are the main courts in our justice system. If someone wants to appeal a decision made by a court, they can ask a senior court to check the decision from the lower court.

For example, a case that is decided in a District Court can be appealed to the High Court, or in some cases, directly to the Court of Appeal. A decision by a senior court is binding on a lower court. The Supreme Court is the final appeal court, but it hears only a small number of cases. Decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all other courts.

See the structure of courts poster [PDF, 658 KB]

What judges do

Every court has a judge. Judges consider the evidence on all sides of a case. They interpret the laws that have been passed by Parliament and apply them to the evidence in the case. Evidence is usually presented by lawyers on behalf of the people on trial or parties in a dispute.

When the judge has considered all the evidence, they make a judgment or decision. They might, for example, send a criminal to prison or say that someone has to pay money to someone else for treating them unfairly.

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