New Zealand's constitutional system

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The branches of Government

New Zealand has three branches of Government:

  1. The Legislature consists of Members of Parliament and the Governor-General. The role of the Legislature is to make laws (legislation), and to scrutinise the Executive.

  2. The Executive consists of Ministers (both inside and outside Cabinet) and Government departments. The role of the Executive is to decide policy, propose laws (which must be approved by the Legislature) and administer the law.

  3. The Judiciary consists of all judges. The role of the judiciary is to interpret and apply the law. There are two main sources of law: statutes (the laws passed by Parliament) and the ‘common law’. The common law has been developed by judges over the centuries, and may be altered by the courts to meet changing circumstances. 

The three branches operate independently from one another, a principle known as the ‘separation of powers’. This principle is intended to prevent abuses of power, as each branch acts as a check on the others.

Judicial independence

Judges are independent from the other branches of Government and from each other. Judges must be free to determine each case according to the law, based on the evidence presented in court. This means that judges must be free from influence from every person including, but not limited to, the Governor-General, Members of Parliament (including Ministers) and Government officials.

Judicial decisions can be appealed to a senior court, as long as the relevant legislation allows this. The Supreme Court of New Zealand is the final court of appeal.

Court staff are also independent when exercising their statutory powers as registrars or deputy registrars of the court, such as deciding whether or not to grant an application for waiver of fees. The decisions of registrars and deputy registrars can be reviewed by a High Court judge if an application is made under the High Court Rules.

The role of the Judicial Conduct Commissioner

The Judicial Conduct Commissioner deals with complaints about the conduct of judges. The Judicial Conduct Commissioner cannot investigate complaints about judicial decisions; judicial decisions can only be reviewed through the appeal or judicial review processes provided for in legislation. More information can be found on the Judicial Conduct Commissioner’s website(external link).

Parliamentary sovereignty

The Judiciary cannot interfere with decisions of Parliament (the Legislature), such as the decision to pass a law. However, the Judiciary can review the actions of the Executive to see whether they acted within the powers given to them by legislation. This is called judicial review. More information about Parliament can be found on Parliament’s website(external link).

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