New Zealand has had courts that deal with minor criminal offences and civil claims since the mid-1840s. These courts have been known at different times as District Local Courts and Magistrates Courts. In 1980 the Magistrates Courts were renamed District Courts and their jurisdiction increased.
There are currently 57 District Courts throughout New Zealand. Many of these have resident judges, and judges visit the remaining Courts on circuit from time to time. The District Courts Act 1947 provides for a maximum of 156 District Court judges.
The District Courts Act also sets the jurisdiction of the District Courts. In the civil jurisdiction, the District Court can determine claims involving up to $200,000. At the lower end of the scale, disputes involving less than $15,000 can be dealt with by the Disputes Tribunals.
In the criminal jurisdiction, the District Court hears cases involving minor offences, but can conduct trials for some serious offences, such as rape and aggravated robbery.
The Chief District Court Judge is the senior judge of the District Courts. The Chief Judge plays a leading role in the administration of the District Courts including:
- rostering of judges
- involvement in the appointment process for new judges.
- representing the District Courts on committees and in dealings with the Ministry of Justice
- appointing executive judges to assist with administration tasks
- issuing practice notes aimed at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts.
- representing the District Courts in the media.