Story: Judicial system

Page 4. History of the courts

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Supreme Court

The first courts in New Zealand were established under authority of the sovereign, Queen Victoria. The Letters Patent of 16 November 1840 (the Royal Charter) empowered the governor to constitute courts and appoint judges to administer justice in the colony. In 1841 an ordinance of the Legislative Council established the Supreme Court of New Zealand, which continues in existence as the High Court. The Supreme Court was modelled on the superior courts in the United Kingdom, except that the court had jurisdiction in both common law and equity (legal principles that supplement and soften the rigor of the common law). Two successive consolidating acts reconstituted the court and carried over its jurisdiction. The High Court is constituted under the Judicature Act 1908, which vests in the court ‘all judicial jurisdiction which may be necessary to administer the laws of New Zealand’.

Lower courts

In 1841 the Legislative Council established lower courts with limited jurisdiction that could meet the needs of the fledgling colony. Courts of requests and courts of petty sessions exercised civil and criminal jurisdiction, presided over by commissioners and justices of the peace. In 1846 resident magistrates’ courts were established; in 1893 they were renamed magistrates’ courts. These courts sat until 1980, when they were renamed district courts. District courts continue in existence in the 2000s and exercise an expanded civil and criminal jurisdiction.

Court of Appeal

A Court of Appeal was established in 1862, although not as a permanently constituted court. Supreme Court judges were convened when required to sit as a Court of Appeal, which combined both original and appellate functions. The court exercised appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the Supreme Court (as the High Court was then known), including decisions from lower courts heard on appeal in the Supreme Court. The court sat as panels of Supreme Court judges, until the Judicature Amendment Act 1957 constituted it a permanent court with a fixed membership. Its work is wholly appellate, although in exceptional cases judges of the Court of Appeal may sit as a full court of the High Court to exercise that court’s original jurisdiction. Such occurrences are rare.

Privy Council

The abolition of appeals to the Privy Council in London was a long-awaited development. The right of appeal originated as a colonial jurisdiction to oversee the administration of justice in the colony. Abolition of the appeal to the Privy Council was mooted as early as 1903, but it took a further 100 years to achieve it. Former President of the Court of Appeal Robin Cooke promoted the case for abolition. He emphasised the distinctiveness of New Zealand law, the remoteness of our final appellate court, and the need to promote our national legal identity. Not to end the right to appeal to the Privy Council, he argued, would be to renounce part of New Zealand’s nationhood.

Supreme Court of New Zealand

The Supreme Court was established when the Privy Council appeal was abolished in 2003, and it exercises the final right of appeal. The objective was to improve access to justice through:

  • making New Zealand’s highest court more accessible
  • broadening the range and increasing the volume of appeals to the highest court
  • capitalising on appellate judges’ understanding of local conditions.

The Supreme Court sits in Wellington in a purpose-built court on Lambton Quay, which was officially opened in January 2010.

How to cite this page:

Philip A. Joseph and Thomas Joseph, 'Judicial system - History of the courts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/judicial-system/page-4 (accessed 9 December 2019)

Story by Philip A. Joseph and Thomas Joseph, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 11 Oct 2016