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The Role of the Courts

The courts conduct more than 1,600 criminal trials a year and hear more than 1,000 substantive civil cases between individuals or between individuals and the Government. The disputes resolved by the courts touch virtually all aspects of life in New Zealand.

Courts have a wide variety of functions. They include enforcing the criminal law, resolving civil disputes amongst citizens, upholding the rights of the individual, ensuring that government agencies stay within the law, and explaining the law.

The courts are one of the three branches of government, working alongside but independently of the Legislature (Parliament) and the Executive (Cabinet and Ministers outside Cabinet plus government departments).

Under 'the rule of law', Government and citizens (and other individuals) are bound by the law and all are accountable under the law. The decisions of the courts themselves similarly must be lawful and can be appealed or reviewed by higher courts for error.

An aspect of the rule of law is access to courts that are independent and impartial. Independence of the Judiciary exists to ensure that the individual judge when sitting is subject only to law.

Just as the Judiciary is independent from the other branches of Government, so each judge is independent from all other judges. Judges are therefore free to make their decisions without direction from any other judge, in the same way that they cannot be influenced in their decisions by the other branches of government or any other kind of pressure.

A judge can only be properly influenced by the law and the facts of the case as he or she finds them. In this way, decisions are impartial, fair, and decided according to established legal principles.

There are two main sources of law: statutes (the laws passed by Parliament) and 'the common law'. Common law has been developed by judges over the centuries, and may be amended and developed by the courts to meet changing circumstances. Parliament may repeal, modify, or develop the common law by statute.

The courts do not declare laws passed by Parliament to be invalid. While the courts must apply statutes, they may first need to interpret what they mean. Parliament sometimes disagrees with the courts' interpretation of a statute, and in those circumstances, it may amend the legislation to make its meaning clearer.

There are other important legal principles applied by the courts including the principle that everyone is equal before the law. This means that the law is applied 'without fear or favour'. It is a basic requirement of any system of justice that the courts must be seen to be impartial and fair.

The courts are generally open to the public so that the delivery of justice can be observed by the public. Subject to specific statutory exceptions, members of the public and the news media have the right to attend court hearings. This is referred to as the principle of 'open justice'. Open process maintains public confidence in the justice system.

Many of the rights the courts protect go back centuries. The Magna Carta in 1215, which restricted the power of the monarch, is still applied in New Zealand. Much of New Zealand's law, such as its common law tradition and constitutional framework, has been inherited from the English legal system, which was applied (so far as applicable to the circumstances of New Zealand) in 1840.

Independent, fair and efficient courts are an important cornerstone in our democracy. Courts underpin social stability. They give confidence that our rights as citizens can be upheld; that our differences and conflicts can be resolved through law; that those who interfere with our rights can be held to account; that our society can be protected from law breakers; and that the State can be required always to act lawfully.

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