Jurisdiction of the District Court

The District Court constitutes the largest court in New Zealand and the whole of Australasia. Many of the legal issues which affect New Zealanders are dealt with at the District Court. A typical day at the District Court could include traffic fines, custody disagreements, contract disputes or serious violence. There are 58 District Courts and Hearing Centres throughout New Zealand, from Kaitaia to Invercargill to the Chatham Islands.

 

Outline map of New Zealand, showing the location of District Courts as dots.

Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction means the cases a court permitted to hear and decide. The District Court's jurisdiction comes from laws such as the District Court Act 2016 (criminal and civil), Family Court Act 1980 (Family Court) and Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 (Youth Court).

The District Court has four main areas of jurisdiction:

  • In its criminal jurisdiction, almost all criminal cases except murder, manslaughter and some treason-related offences;
  • In its family division (the Family Court), most family law issues, including matters relating to adoption, custody, abduction, state care and relationship property;
  • In its youth division (the Youth Court), criminal offending by young people between the ages of 12-17;
  • In its civil jurisdiction, disputes up to a value of $350,000, restraining orders, and appeals from some tribunals (such as the Disputes Tribunal, Tenancy Tribunal and Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) Review Hearings).

In most cases, the District Court is the court of first instance. This means that the District Court hears cases that have not been heard by any other court. If someone is unhappy with a decision of the District Court, he or she may be able to appeal it to an appellate court. Depending on the case, this could be the High Court or the Court of Appeal. In some cases, a decision may be appealed from these appellate courts to New Zealand’s highest court, the Supreme Court. These appellate courts may reverse or vary the District Court’s decision, or require the District Court to reconsider aspects of the case.

In rare cases, the District Court may be an appellate or reviewing court. This includes some cases that have already been heard by a judicial officer who is not a judge, or in a Disputes Tribunal, Tenancy Tribunal, or an ACC Review Hearing.

The following diagram sets out the place of the District Court in New Zealand’s court structure. The arrows show routes of appeal.

The courts in orange are courts of general jurisdiction. They can hear matters relating to a wide variety of laws. The courts and tribunals in grey are courts of specialist jurisdiction. They may only hear cases on particular legal issues. For example, the Employment Court only hears cases concerning employment law.

 Chart showing the hierarchy of NZ Courts.