By Judge Simon Menzies
Most people associate the District Court with its criminal jurisdiction. However, it has a civil jurisdiction which is just as important and helps to resolve disputes between individuals, companies or other organisations.
Usually such disputes involve arguments where one party is seeking recovery of money or property, or compensation for some form of loss. The District Court is mandated to resolve such disputes up to a maximum of $350,000. Anything higher is for the High Court.
The District Court also has a wide civil jurisdiction in other miscellaneous areas including appeals from tribunals such as the Disputes Tribunal and the Tenancy Tribunal.
Other proceedings can include restraining order applications under the Harassment Act 1977, disputes about trees, claims for remedies for harm caused online under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 together with a vast range of other areas where the jurisdiction to resolve matters is specifically vested in the District Court.
The District Court’s civil jurisdiction receives about 16,000 applications a year but fewer than 1000 become defended.
Unlike the Disputes Tribunal, which is set up to handle relatively small-scale disputes in a less formal manner, the District Court is governed by a set of procedural rules designed to ensure that disputes proceed and resolve efficiently while ensuring fairness to all involved.
Once a claim is made, several steps follow that require parties to disclose all relevant documents in a process called discovery, and a judge will oversee the procedure up to and including a formal hearing. There will usually be a series of case management conferences and, in many cases, a Judicial Settlement Conference (JSC).
“The District Court is governed by a set of procedural rules designed to ensure that disputes proceed and resolve efficiently while ensuring fairness to all involved”
The JSC process enables all parties, with their lawyers, to meet confidentially to try and resolve the issues informally without the need to go to a formal hearing. The process is similar to mediation. A settlement at a JSC is binding but can only be achieved by agreement.
If a judicial ruling is necessary to resolve a dispute, a hearing will be scheduled. Depending on the nature of the claim and defence, hearing options may include a short trial, simplified trial or full trial.
Where there is a claim with no arguable defence, summary judgment may be appropriate, whereby the judge makes a decision without a trial.
It is not obligatory for people to have a lawyer represent them in court, and increasingly people are choosing to represent themselves in civil disputes. The District Court Rules and processes are, however, relatively complex and people sometimes find the process difficult to navigate without legal help.
Most cases tend to resolve without the need for a fully contested hearing, partly because of the high success rate of the JSC process. Often, because parties themselves have agreed on an outcome through a JSC, an ongoing relationship can be maintained. But sometimes the ultimate determination of a dispute has to be managed by the court which inevitably has consequential costs.
Whatever path is taken by those trying to resolve a conflict, District Court judges with particular civil expertise ensure a process which provides the most efficient and effective outcome practicable.