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The law of New Zealand consists of the common law, statute law enacted by the New Zealand parliament, a number of United Kingdom laws which are still in force, regulations, by-laws and other forms of subordinate legislation. When applying the common law, New Zealand courts take into account common law principles developed in New Zealand and countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

The judiciary

The hierarchy of courts of New Zealand consists of Her Majesty the Queen in Council (the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council); the court of Appeal; the High Court and the District Courts. All courts exercise both criminal and civil jurisdiction.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final appeal tribunal. The Court of Appeal is the highest appeal court and exercises an appeal jurisdiction only. In criminal matters the Court of Appeal hears appeals against convictions and sentences imposed in the High Court or District Court. The decisions of this court are final except where an appeal lies to the Judicial Commission of the Privy Council.

The jurisdiction of the High Court is very wide. Its jurisdiction extends to cases of major crimes, the more important civil claims, appeals from inferior courts and tribunals, and reviews of administrative actions.

District Courts are established in various localities and they have extensive civil and criminal jurisdiction. Justices of the Peace can sit as a District Court to hear a limited number of minor criminal charges. The Family Court, established in 1980 and Small Claims Tribunals, established in 1976 are divisions of the District Courts.

Among the courts with specialist functions is the Children and Young Persons Court, established under the Act of 1974, which deals with every complaint under the Act relating to care, protection, or control of a child or young person. Specially warranted district court judges exercise the jurisdiction of these courts. Children and Young Person Courts have criminal jurisdiction to deal with offences committed by children and young persons, except in cases of murder, manslaughter, and traffic offences not punishable by imprisonment. Appeals from decisions of these courts may be brought to the High Court.

A majority of indictable offences are dealt with summarily by the District Court judges. They have jurisdiction over all crimes against property and all but the most serious of other crimes, such as treason, homicide, rape, and perjury. A District Court judge may, however, decline to deal with an offence summarily, and the accused is committed for trial in the High Court. The accused person also has the right to claim a jury trial if he/she is charged with any offence punishable by imprisonment of more than three months.

New Zealand is the first country in the world to introduce a statutory scheme for compensation by the state to persons injured by crimes of violence and to the dependants of persons killed by such acts. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1963 is administered by the Accident Compensation Corporation. The Corporation caters for all personal injury by accident in New Zealand, and thus covers the whole range of listed criminal injuries, including pregnancy by rape, and criminal infection with disease. This scheme is designed as a fund of first resort.

New Zealand also has a scheme of legal aid to the needy. The Legal Aid Act 1969 is based on the principle that no one should be prevented by lack of means from having their grievances heard and determined fairly by the courts. The scheme is administered by the Department of Social Welfare.


Most criminal prosecutions are handled by the police. Other crown agencies, however, can prosecute for breaches of legislation they administer; eg Department of Justice can prosecutes for breaches of parole conditions and the Ministry of Transport for traffic offences, etc.


The New Zealand Police Force has long recognised that the most effective policing is that which prevents crime since it is more expedient, more humane, less socially disruptive and far less costly.

The Neighbourhood Watch scheme was launched in October 1980 to encourage and assist families in protecting their own home and those of their neighbours from crime. Neighbourhood Support Groups, which were initiated by two members of the public in 1985 and actively supported by the police, extend this philosophy and aim to create a responsive, caring community where all people are committed to take responsibility for their own well-being in a violence free environment.

The strength of Neighbourhood Support Groups is that they are grass roots organisations which arise out of the community, respond to the community's needs and find solutions to the problems the community identifies. They concentrate not just on the protection of property but also on domestic violence, incest, child abuse and sexual harassment. Kits which advise communities on how to set up these groups contain advice on how to handle these situations whether as the victim or as a member of the community, and also contain information on home security and self-defence. Rural Support Groups are a modification of the Neighbourhood Support Group scheme to meet the special needs of those living in rural areas.

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