For the Courts, criminal cases begin when the Police or other prosecuting authority file an "information" with the Court. An information is the formal method of accusing someone with breaking the law, and is often called a summons. The defendant is then summonsed to the Court. If the charge is denied, and a plea of not guilty entered, the case is "adjourned", put off, for the Judge to hear the evidence against the person. If the defendant pleads guilty or the charge against the defendant is later proved beyond reasonable doubt, a conviction usually follows, and the Judge then sentences the defendant.
The hearing of less serious charges can be conducted by a Judge alone.
More serious charges are heard before a Judge and jury. If a defendant is charged with an offence that carries a penalty of three months imprisonment he or she can usually elect trial by jury. Before the trial can proceed, there is a preliminary hearing, often called depositions, to see if there is sufficient evidence to put the accused person on trial.
Over 95% of all jury trials in New Zealand are heard in the District Courts.
A civil case comes to Court if the parties themselves cannot resolve the dispute between them. Most claims are filed by lawyers filing a statement of claim in the Court on behalf of the plaintiff, but it is not compulsory to use a lawyer.
Even after they have been filed in Court, many civil claims are resolved before they get to a hearing because the parties reach an agreement between themselves. Often such agreements are facilitated by a Judge at a settlement conference.
The District Court hears approximately 1,800 civil cases per year.