Series on the Judicature Modernisation Bill

The ADLS Civil Litigation Committee continues its series looking at some of the Acts relevant to civil litigation which have been separated out from the Judicature Modernisation Bill.

In Issues 3 and 4, the Committee looked at the Trans-Tasman Proceedings Act 2016 and the Electronic Courts and Tribunals Act 2016. This week, it considers the District Court Act 2016.

The District Court Act 2016

The District Courts are the primary courts of first instance, distributing justice at almost thirty times the rate of all the higher courts combined (by cases disposed of for 2015 http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/old/from/statistics/annual-statistics/latest-december-2015). Their reform is therefore a fundamental part of the courts reforms under the Judicature Modernisation Bill.

The District Court Act 2016 (Act) was given Royal Asset on 17 October 2016 and repeals and replaces the District Courts Act 1947. Generally, it updates the law with more modern language and logical restructuring of the locations of provisions in the Act. The key changes that practitioners should be aware of include the following.

A single Court

Unlike the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, under the District Courts Act 1947 there are currently 63 different District Courts each with their own staff and seal, and various different operating protocols. The Act rectifies this situation, providing for one unitary District Court with many offices, as well as divisions for a Family Court, Youth Court and a Disputes Tribunal (see District Court Act 2016, section 3).

It is intended that the individual offices will still be able to act independently of one another to serve the needs of their particular communities. For example, the specialist pilot schemes which currently operate in particular courts, such as the adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court and the upcoming dedicated Sexual Violence Courts, will carry on undisturbed.

Note also the consequential changes in terminology, from “District Courts”, “Disputes Tribunals” and “District Courts Rules 2014” to “District Court”, “Disputes Tribunal” and “District Court Rules 2014”.

Increase in civil jurisdiction limit to $350,000

The current $200,000 limit was set in 1992. To maintain the real value after adjusting for 24 years of inflation, the threshold would need to be at least $325,000 (see http://www.rbnz.govt.nz/monetary-policy/inflation-calculator). Under the Act, the District Court has jurisdiction to hear and determine a proceeding in which the amount claimed or the value of the property in dispute (after any set off) does not exceed $350,000 (see sections 74-78).

Transfer of proceedings to the High Court

Under the 1947 Act, a claim for more than $50,000 could be moved by the defendant to the High Court as of right, with a discretion being held by the court to transfer a claim lower than this. Under the Act, this figure has now been raised to $90,000 (see sections 86-87).

Other changes

  • A wider range of orders is available to prevent meritless civil litigation, harmonising with legislation for the senior courts (see sections 213-216).
  • More modernised language is used throughout the Act. For example: “warrant of distress” has become “warrant to seize property” and “warrant of committal” has become “warrant to detain in prison”.
  • For enhanced transparency of judicial processes there are new requirements for certain information to be made available to the public, such as information and statistics regarding the delivery of reserved judgments (section 218), protocols for the appointment of judges (section 11), recusal guidelines (section 217) and guidelines on judges holding other employment or offices (section 18).
  • A requirement for the publication of all final written judgments failed to make the enactment for funding reasons, although practitioners may be assisted by the District Court Judiciary’s website (http://www.districtcourts.govt.nz) which publishes searchable decisions of interest from the District Courts.

The Act comes into force on 1 March 2017 (section 2). There are transitional and savings provisions in Schedule 3 (section 262). These include that proceedings commenced under the District Courts Act 1947 continue as if that Act had not been repealed (Schedule 3, clause 5) and that the District Courts Rules 2014 (now known as the District Court Rules 2014) are to be treated as if enacted under section 228 (Schedule 3, clause 6).

Look out for more updates on the other new Acts in forthcoming issues of LawNews as well as information about CPD activity on these topics.

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