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The History of the High Court

Te Kōti Matua o Aotearoa

The High Court was established in December 1841 and was known until 1980 as the Supreme Court. Its establishment followed the arrival in New Zealand of the first Chief Justice, William Martin, and it heard its first case in January 1842.

The court had the functions of the English common law and equity superior courts, and it had jurisdiction in criminal trials, testamentary disputes, questions of lunacy and admiralty matters. The court also exercised general supervision over lower courts and tribunals and was the court of appeal for the magistrates courts.

The court comprised the Chief Justice and a number of "puisne" judges. The number of judges increased according to the workload. The qualification for appointment was seven years' practice as a barrister or advocate of the United Kingdom, or as a barrister or solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

British influence on the court was strong throughout the nineteenth century. By the early 20th century, the courts were being redefined to better suit the particular needs of New Zealand. The Judicature Act 1908 defined the Supreme Court’s role, no longer by reference to British courts. Instead it would have "all judicial jurisdiction which may be necessary to administer the laws of New Zealand."

During the early 1970s there was a rise in the number of criminal jury trials and a substantial increase in the administrative law cases coming to the court both in its appellate and supervisory jurisdiction. The High Court appellate jurisdiction rose too as a result of the greater jurisdiction of the district courts. As the workload rose, so too did the number of judges.

In 1980, the Supreme Court was renamed as the High Court in order to free the name 'Supreme Court' for a final Court of Appeal. The magistrates’ courts were renamed as district courts and were given some of the jurisdiction that had previously exercised by the Supreme Court (High Court).

More than a century and a half since the first Chief Justice of New Zealand was appointed, the High Court remains the superior court of general jurisdiction in New Zealand. It has principal responsibility for maintenance of legality through its supervisory and administrative law jurisdiction. It hears the more serious criminal and civil cases and it exercises significant supervisory and appellate jurisdiction over lower courts and tribunals.


  • Spiller, Finn & Boast A New Zealand Legal History (2nd Edn) (2001)
  • Report of the Royal Commission on the Courts, 1978
  • The Laws of New Zealand, Courts Reissue 1 (2004).


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