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New Zealand - Legal System

The legal system in New Zealand is based upon the one used in the UK. Common law in New Zealand is similar to that in the UK but has been added to and adapted over the years by the New Zealand government. There are three branches to the New Zealand government. These are the Legislature (parliament), the Executive (Prime Minister and Cabinet) and the Judiciary (judges and the courts). Each branch has the power to act independently but no one branch is in a position to work outside of the law.

Judges in New Zealand are appointed officially by the Governor-General and each one must be a fully qualified lawyer with a minimum of 7 years experience. They preside over both civil and criminal cases. Civil law covers issues between individuals and companies and cases that do not need the involvement of the police. Criminal law covers cases that usually have the involvement of the police. It is not essential for a criminal prosecution to be brought by the police, as various government departments and local authorities have the right to instigate criminal proceedings.

Those who are arrested have the right to a lawyer, the right to have all evidence heard in a court which is open to the public and has the right to be tested in the form of a cross-examination. All convictions must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Those who are convicted will be given a sentence in line with the law and will have the right to appeal against both the conviction and the sentence.

In both the district courts and the High Court in New Zealand a judge can hear a case on his/her own or with a jury. As in the UK and the US, a jury is selected from 12 people at random. The jury is there to decide on the facts of the case. There are a number of laws in existence which determine if a jury is required. Occasionally there is the choice of whether to have a jury or not. The judge will rule on different questions of law which are raised during the case and will clarify these for the jury.

The highest court in New Zealand is the Supreme Court. Below this are the Court of Appeal, then the High Court and the District Courts. Most cases are heard in district courts, both civil and criminal. However, in cases where monies of more than $200,000 are involved or serious crimes, then these need to be heard by the High Court. The High Court will also hear appeals on cases from the District Courts, although some will go directly to the Court of Appeal. For most cases this is the final stage, as the Supreme Court will hear only a very small minority of cases. A case would need to have been granted ‘leave to appeal’ to reach the Supreme Court. Decisions that are taken by the Supreme Court are final.

In addition to these courts there are smaller specialist courts such as the Environment Court, the Employment Court, the Coroner’s Courts and the Maori Land Court.

The courts in New Zealand work on what is known as the ‘adversary system’. The judge is a neutral person, hearing arguments from both sides of the case. There are rules regarding evidence which is permissible at a trial. All the rules are in place to ensure a fair hearing for each side of the case. In cases where there is no jury, a verdict is given by a judge.

Lawyers in New Zealand work slightly differently than they do in the UK. They are usually both barristers and solicitors, while in the UK they are either one or the other. A few will work solely as barristers. New Zealand does have a legal aid scheme for those who are unable to pay for any legal representation themselves. This can be applied in both civil and criminal cases.

Finding a lawyer in New Zealand is fairly straightforward. The New Zealand Law Society has a search facility on their website which allows users to search for local lawyers who specialise in legal aid, property law or family law, among other categories.

Useful Resources

The New Zealand Law Society
26 Waring Taylor Street
Wellington 6011
New Zealand
Telephone: +64 4 472 7837

Read more about this country

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