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Different Courts in NZ

Different courts in NZ

There are different courts in NZ to tackle different legal issues that people may have.

This section expands on the different courts we have in NZ and when you may go to each one.

Why are there different Courts in NZ?

In NZ, different courts have different responsibilities. Each Court has specific cases it can hear as well as higher courts which can review lower court decisions.

Most minor cases may be dealt with through tribunals in NZ.
We also have courts that deal with specific matters like the Family Court that deals with family problems, a Maori Land Court which is a court regarding Maori land, and even an Environment Court to deal with disagreements involving natural resources and the environment.

You can have a look at this diagram to see how the courts relate to one another.

What is a Tribunal?

There are 30 different tribunals, authorities and committees in NZ, they’re all forums that resolve disputes. All tribunals deal with a specific category of law – e.g. privates disputes, complaints about a regulated professional etc. Decisions made by tribunals are binding, meaning the judgments need to be followed through, like a court judgment.

Tribunals are usually designed to be faster, more informal and cheaper than going to court, making it easier for people to access and use.

The most common ones you may have heard of is the Disputes Tribunal for small claims and the Tenancy Tribunal for tenancy matters.

Someone owes me money, do I have to take them to court to get it back?

Most minor money matters between individuals in NZ can be dealt with through the Disputes Tribunal as it is quick, inexpensive, informal and private. The Tribunal deals with disputes of up to $15,000 (or $20,000 if both sides agree). A trained referee will hear your dispute and make a final decision by looking at what is fair in the circumstances and applying the law.

A lawyer is not allowed, but if you need any help with preparing for a Disputes Tribunal case, contact YouthLaw or your local community law centre.

How much is it to take a case to the Disputes Tribunal?

Currently, the fees are:

  • $45 if the amount claimed is less than $2000
  • $90 if the amount claimed is between $2000 -$4999.99
  • $180 if the amount claimed is $5000 or more.

What can the Disputes Tribunal make decisions about?

The Disputes Tribunal will hear claims where there is a dispute that involves money.

For example:

  • Consumer disputes, such as:
    • whether work has been done properly;
    • the amount of money charged for work that has been done;
    • defective goods and services;
    • loss caused by misleading advertising;
    • hire purchase agreements (now called credit sales);
    • disputed debts.
  • Neighbour disputes, such as:
    • fencing issues;
    • damage to property.
  • Other disputes such as:
    • damage to a car in an accident;
    • contract disputes;
    • disputes about business agreements;
    • flatmate disputes.

What should I bring to a Disputes Tribunal hearing?

At the hearing, both sides will be allowed to tell their side of the dispute. You should bring with you any evidence that will help the referee understand your case better.

This includes:

  • Supporting evidence includes documents such as contracts, written agreements, receipts, quotes, invoices, bank statements, letters,  texts, emails, Facebook messages etc. You should provide printed copies of the documents to the referee. It is much easier for the referee to refer back to these documents than if you showed them on an electronic device;
  • A timeline of what had happened from your point of view;
  • If you’re asking for a figure, have it written down how you came to that figure;
  • Witnesses are also able to be present to support your claim. If the referee allows, witnesses may give evidence over the telephone.

What happens at a Disputes Tribunal hearing?

The referee (similar to a judge) will start the hearing with the procedures and rules of the hearing. Both sides will then get a chance to present their evidence to the referee who will ask questions about the case and the evidence.

Witnesses may be called in to give evidence by the referee. The other side is able to ask the witness questions after they give their evidence. The witness will only be allowed in when they are giving their evidence.

Once all the evidence has been presented, the referee will explain the law and issues of the case. The referee will ask if the sides are willing to settle the dispute themselves. If you can’t reach an agreement, the referee will then make a decision either on the spot or in writing afterwards. Hearings take around 1-2 hours.

I’ve received a Disputes Tribunal claim in the mail. What should I do?

If someone is claiming against you, you can either:

  • Contact the person who has claimed against you to try and come to an agreement before going to the Disputes Tribunal; or
  • Go to the Disputes Tribunal on the hearing date with your evidence to defend the claim; or
  • Make a counter-claim against the other side if you think they owe you something. You will need to do this at least 10 days before the hearing if you choose this option. The claim and counter-claim will be dealt with in the same hearing.

Give me some tips for working things out at the Disputes Tribunal!

  • Be prepared for your case. Bring all your evidence with you and tab your documents so you can easily find the right document when you are asked for it;
  • Dress neatly;
  • Arrive on time, but preferably before the hearing time;
  • Listen to what the other side is saying, even if you disagree, speak only when it’s your turn to speak;
  • Stay calm and always be polite;
  • It can be very frustrating when you’re up against someone who’s done you wrong, but always talk about the facts of your case, do not attack the other person verbally or physically;
  • Do not threaten anyone;
  • Suggest a solution that might work for everyone.

I don’t think the Disputes Tribunal decision was fair, what can I do?

You can apply to the District Court within 28 days from the date of the tribunal order (judgment) if you believe the referee had managed the hearing in an unfair way and made a biased judgment because they didn’t follow a fair and correct procedure. There is a $200 appeal fee.

I wasn’t able to make the Disputes Tribunal hearing, can I get a rehearing?

You can apply for a rehearing if you or your witness was unable to make the hearing because of some unexpected event such as illness or a motor accident or if you didn’t receive the hearing letter. You will need to provide evidence of the unexpected event, e.g. doctor’s certificate or a letter from the Ministry of Transport. Being late because you didn’t leave enough time is not a reason for a rehearing.

You can also apply for a rehearing at the Disputes Tribunal if you can show that not all the relevant information was available, or that new information has been discovered after the hearing, or the referee had made a major error when calculating the amount to be paid.

You must apply for a rehearing within 28 days of the tribunal order (judgment).

What can I do if the Disputes Tribunal has ordered the other person to pay me, but they still haven’t paid me?

You can write the other side a letter detailing the enforcement steps you will be taking and give them a reasonable deadline. If they still don’t follow the order, you can either take it to a debt collection agency (but they will charge you a fee or a percentage of the debt) or you can apply to the District Court to have the order enforced (followed through).

How do I apply to the District Court to have a Disputes Tribunal Order enforced?

Firstly, you will have to contact the Collections Unit at your local District Court. There is a filing fee for enforcement, but the fee is not paid up front and is instead added to the amount owed by the other side.

The most common ways of enforcement include:

  • Application for attachment order (the court ordering payments to be deducted directly from the other person’s income);
  • Application for assessment of financial means (the court will make a financial assessment of the other person, to see whether they have enough money to pay you);
  • Warrant to seize property (applying to the court for it to issue a warrant authorising a court bailiff to visit the other person and to seize their personal possessions).

To find out more, check out the community law manual.

What does the Family Court do?

The Family Court deals with issues to do with the family. If your parents are going through a separation, you may be required to attend the Family Court to give evidence. Sometimes, you will be given a lawyer, and they will tell the court your views.

Sometimes if you’re younger than 14 and commit a crime, this may be seen as a family issue. If the police are not happy with your care and protection and the environment you are in, you may have to go to the Family Court for a judge to decide who and how best to look after you. MCOT will also likely get involved.

What is the Youth Court and what does it do?

If the police believe you have committed a crime when you’re at least 14 but younger than 17, your case will go through the Youth Justice System. You could also go through the Youth Justice System if you’re at least 10 but younger than 14 and the police believe you have killed someone, but some of these cases can also be dealt with through the Family Court.

Usually, through the Youth Justice System, you will have to go through a Family Group Conference first. If the police aren’t happy with the outcome of the Family Group Conference, or if the police think your case is very serious, you might have to go to the Youth Court and a judge will decide on the penalties and consequences you should face.

What is the District Court and what does it do?

If you’re 17 and over, and you are charged with a crime, your hearing will usually be at the District Court. Generally, you will go to the District Court that is closest to where you may have offended. You can also go to the District Court for some minor charges, including some minor driving charges even if you’re under 17.

More serious cases go to the High Court instead of the District Court.

Also if you have civil claims (of $200,000 or less and more than the Disputes Tribunal limit), you will need to take your case to District Court.

What is a civil claim?

A civil claim is cases that are not about breaking a criminal law, but rather disputes between individuals, companies and sometimes the government. This may be disputes over contracts, disputes between neighbours, judicial reviews etc.

If you want a lawyer to help you but can’t afford one, you may be able to apply for legal aid. If you’re not sure what to do, contact YouthLaw or your local community law centre.

What is the High Court and what does it do?

The High Court has more power than the District Court. You go to the High Court if you have committed a very serious offence which could have a serious punishment like murder or treason. These cases are decided by a jury.

The High Court also hears appeals from lower Courts’ decision, e.g. District Court decisions. If you think that the District Court got the law wrong when they decided your case, you can ask the High Court to take another look at the case by appealing. But just because you ask for an appeal, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get permission to. You need to be able to show good reasons why you should be allowed to appeal.

The High Court also decides on cases with claims above $200,000 and complex cases.

What are the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court?

The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court only hear cases on appeal. You can ask to appeal to the Court of Appeal if you think that the High Court got the law wrong. You can ask to appeal to the Supreme Court if you think that the Court of Appeal got the law wrong. Remember that just because you ask for an appeal, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get permission to. You need to be able to show really good reasons why you should be allowed to appeal.

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