The High Court was established in December 1841 and was known until 1980 as the Supreme Court. Its establishment followed the arrival in New Zealand of the first Chief Justice, William Martin, and it heard its first case in January 1842.
The court had the functions of the English common law and equity superior courts, and it had jurisdiction in criminal trials, testamentary disputes, questions of lunacy and admiralty matters. The court also exercised general supervision over lower courts and tribunals and was the court of appeal for the magistrates courts.
The court comprised the Chief Justice and a number of "puisne" judges. The number of judges increased according to the workload. The qualification for appointment was seven years' practice as a barrister or advocate of the United Kingdom, or as a barrister or solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.
British influence on the court was strong throughout the nineteenth century. By the early 20th century, the courts were being redefined to better suit the particular needs of New Zealand. The Judicature Act 1908 defined the Supreme Courtâ€™s role, no longer by reference to British courts. Instead it would have "all judicial jurisdiction which may be necessary to administer the laws of New Zealand."
During the early 1970s there was a rise in the number of criminal jury trials and a substantial increase in the administrative law cases coming to the court both in its appellate and supervisory jurisdiction. The High Court appellate jurisdiction rose too as a result of the greater jurisdiction of the district courts. As the workload rose, so too did the number of judges.
In 1980, the Supreme Court was renamed as the High Court in order to free the name 'Supreme Court' for a final Court of Appeal. The magistrates' courts were renamed as district courts and were given some of the jurisdiction that had previously exercised by the Supreme Court (High Court).
More than a century and a half since the first Chief Justice of New Zealand was appointed, the High Court remains the superior court of general jurisdiction in New Zealand. It has principal responsibility for maintenance of legality through its supervisory and administrative law jurisdiction. It hears the more serious criminal and civil cases and it exercises significant supervisory and appellate jurisdiction over lower courts and tribunals.
It comprises the head of the New Zealand Judiciary, the Chief Justice and up to 55 other judges (which includes the judges of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal). In addition, Associate Judges of the High Court (formerly known as Masters of the High Court) supervise the Court's preliminary processes in most civil proceedings, and have jurisdiction to deal with summary judgment applications, company liquidations, bankruptcy proceedings, and some other types of civil proceedings.
The High Court Judges and Associate Judges are based in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, but also travel on circuit to Whangarei, Hamilton, Rotorua, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Napier, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Nelson, Blenheim, Greymouth, Timaru, Dunedin and Invercargill. The Court also has registries in Masterton and Tauranga. Court staff in those centres are responsible for supporting the management of cases before the Court and, as Registrars and Sheriffs of the Court, are responsible for exercising certain judicial powers, and enforcing the Court's judgments and orders.
The High Court deals with the most serious types of criminal offences before a judge and jury, and can impose sentence in summary, judge alone, cases where the District Court considers that a penalty is warranted that exceeds the District Court's jurisdiction. It also hears appeals from summary cases.
The Court has virtually unlimited jurisdiction in civil cases, but generally deals only with those civil claims that exceed the jurisdiction of the District Court or other courts and tribunals, or where particularly complex issues are involved. This jurisdiction includes matters concerning admiralty, company law, bankruptcy, the administration of estates and trusts, property transfer, land valuation, and many other areas.
Rights of appeal to the High Court exist against the decisions of District, Family, Youth and Environment Courts and numerous administrative tribunals and regulatory bodies.