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Role and jurisdiction of the District Court

Most New Zealanders who appear in court do so in a District Court. The court deals with nearly 200,000 criminal, family, youth and civil matters every year, making it Australasia’s biggest court.

In 2018, 167 District Court judges and 14 Community Magistrates were warranted to sit in 58 courthouses and hearing centres throughout New Zealand.

Since law changes last year what was previously a network of District Courts has become a unified entity with general, Family Court, Youth Court and Disputes Tribunal divisions.

Most matters brought to court are dealt with in the first instance by the District Court.

Most of the court’s work falls under the criminal jurisdiction where the lead legislation is the Criminal Procedure Act 2011. Almost all criminal cases except murder, manslaughter and some treason-related offences are dealt with entirely in the District Court.

The Family Court deals with most family law issues including adoption, parenting arrangements, abduction, state care, relationship property and estates. The bulk of its workload involves the Care of Children Act 2004 and the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989.

The Youth Court division deals with criminal offending by children and young people aged 12 to 16 years old. From July 2019, this jurisdiction will extend to 17 year olds. The court’s lead legislation is the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989.

The District Court’s civil jurisdiction covers disputes up to $350,000.

Criminal jurisdiction

In New Zealand’s criminal jurisdiction, types of offence are distinguished by four categories. Trials of the first two categories of charges are heard in the District Court by a judicial officer sitting alone.

Defendants who deny category 3 charges can choose either a jury or judge-alone trial in the District Court. More serious charges are referred to the High Court.

More than 100 District Court judges have warrants to conduct jury trials.

Only judges can hear trials for offences punishable by imprisonment. This means that District Court judges deal with the most serious, complex and time-consuming criminal cases within their jurisdiction.

Community Magistrates and judicial Justices of the Peace deal with less serious offending.

Criminal trial outcomes and decisions made in the District Court can be appealed to a higher court, while the District Court is the appeal court for various tribunal decisions.

Image of the Chief Judge addressing the Criminal Jury Trials Committee.

The Chief Judge addresses the Criminal Jury Trials Committee chaired by Judge Michael Crosbie.