New Zealand’s general 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 are ‘courts of general jurisdiction’. They are the main courts in our justice system.
The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the district courts are defined by statute. The High Court has both statutory jurisdiction and inherent common law jurisdiction.
Most court business takes place in district courts, which form the base of the pyramid. Most criminal cases are heard in the district courts, as well as a large number of civil cases, but there is a statutory ‘ceiling’ on the cases that the court can hear. Cases where the amount in issue is more than $200,000, and specified serious criminal cases (such as murder) are heard by the High Court.
The High Court has broad general jurisdiction. In practice, it tends to hear the more serious jury trials, the more complex civil cases, administrative law cases and appeals from the decisions of courts and tribunals below it.
Appeals are to a higher court. A case that is decided in the district courts, for example, can be appealed to the High Court, or directly to the Court of Appeal where the law allows it. The Supreme Court is the final appellate court. Because the Supreme Court hears only a small proportion of cases, the Court of Appeal is in reality the last court for an appeal for most cases in the legal system.
Cases may only go to the Supreme Court if the court grants ‘leave to appeal’. The criteria for granting ‘leave to appeal’ are set out in s13 Supreme Court Act 2003. In general, the case will need to raise a significant legal point or a matter of general and public importance.
A decision by a higher court is binding on lower courts and decisions of the Supreme Court, as the final court of appeal, are binding on all other courts.
Cases that are legally similar will generally be decided the same way, conforming with the decisions of a higher court. This is called the rule of ‘precedent’, and ensures consistency and certainty in how the law is applied.
Outside the pyramid for courts of general jurisdiction are specialist courts and tribunals. These include the Employment Court, the Environment Court, the Māori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, Coroners Courts, the Courts-Martial Appeal Authority and others. The courts of general jurisdiction may hear appeals from these courts and tribunals. Some tribunal decisions cannot be appealed, some can be appealed to the District Court and others to the High Court.