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Legal History of New Zealand


The country of New Zealand is an island country situated in the south-western Pacific Ocean. This country comprises two landmasses, i.e. the North Island and the South Island with around more than 600 smaller islands.

Legal History

Until 1840 the law followed in New Zealand was the Tikanga Māori and Māori customary law. Tikanga Māori was the custom and method of governance by which the Māori society was ordered. After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 with the British Crown, the English Law came into the picture as the presence of the British had increased. In case all the criteria are met, the Māori custom is still recognized as a part of New Zealand. These criteria are:

  1. the custom is of long-standing.
  2. it has continued without interruption since its origin.
  3. it is reasonable.
  4. it is certain in its terms.
  5. it has not been displaced by Parliament through clear statutory wording.

New Zealand law-making

The country has its own parliament since May 1854 and has been very active in passing laws from 1856. New Zealand was a Crown Colony from 1841- 1853. During this period the country was ruled by a governor and thus a firm foundation for law was laid. The Legislative Council was responsible for making laws that were called ordinances and their members were rather appointed and not elected.

New Zealand’s Legal Traditions

The country of New Zealand has a robust adherence to the rule of law which is often an ally to deep and long legal traditions. The law in this country is broadly accepted by all the communities and causes little or no controversy at all. The courts in New Zealand enjoy a reputation of rectitude, equity, and unbiased judgments.

Interpretation of Laws

The laws are passed by the parliament but are interpreted by the judges in courts. These statutory interpretations are considered as the paramount task of the judicial function. The Interpretation Act of 1999 contains the rules for the interpretation of the statutes.

The Bill of Rights

The fundamental rights and freedoms set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are asserted in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990. The Bill of Rights is not regarded as the most superior law of the land but the judges are often required to interpret the laws in a way that they become consistent with the Bill of Rights. The courts in New Zealand have the power to declare the laws made by the Parliament as unconstitutional and to strike them down.

The Court System

The Hierarchy of Courts

The hierarchy of courts in New Zealand in descending order is as follows:

Supreme Court of New Zealand

Court of appeal

High Court

Courts Marital Appeal Authority

District Courts

Specialist Courts

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for appointing staff and services in the courts of New Zealand. The citizens that disobey the court orders are subject to serious sanctions under the law for contempt of court.


Apart from courts, New Zealand has a good number of tribunals to dispense justice as these tribunals are quicker, cheaper, and more user- friendly than courts. There are more than 100 tribunals established in New Zealand. These tribunals established by legislation play an important role in dispensing justice.

Legal Aid

Legal aid is available in New Zealand for people who cannot afford legal services by their own. These kinds of legal aids cover both civil and criminal matters. The main aim of the Legal Services Act 2011 was to deliver legal aid in a more effective manner by promoting easy access to justice.  The act tried to keep a check over the cost of the legal system by providing a public defender system.

Court Procedures

The Criminal Procedure Act 2011 governs the procedure of general courts in criminal matters. This reform in the criminal matter was considered as the biggest since 1961.

The District Courts Act 1947 and Judicature Act 1908, governed the civil procedure and the various other rules made under the act.

Judicial Review

The techniques of administrative law to review the legality of government order was developed by the courts in the late 1960s. The Judicature Amendment Act 1972 stated that ‘the exercise, refusal to exercise, or proposed or purported exercise by any person of any statutory power’ could very well be judicially reviewed by the High Court. The government of New Zealand is not above law but rather is subject to it. 


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