Living Under the Law


New Zealand has inherited the British tradition of an independent judiciary, seen as a protection against unnecessary intrusion by the state into the lives of citizens. The Judicature Act 1908 and the Constitution Act 1986 contain a number of key provisions, designed to ensure judicial independence. Judges (including those who sit in the Court of Appeal) are appointed by the Governor-General, not the government. Neither Court of Appeal nor High Court judges may be removed from office except by the Sovereign or by the Governor General on grounds of misbehaviour or incapacity upon an address of the House of Representatives. District Court judges may be removed from office by the Governor-General, but only on the grounds of inability or misbehaviour.

The salaries of judges are determined by the Higher Salaries Commission under the Higher Salaries Commission Act 1977. Salaries may not be diminished during a judge's commission. No person may be appointed a judge unless he or she has held a practising certificate as a barrister or solicitor for at least seven years. The retirement age is 68, although former judges may be reappointed as acting judges for two years, or one year if the judge is 72 years of age when reappointed.

The court system

At the head of the hierarchy of courts of New Zealand is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Below this is the Court of Appeal followed by the High Court, and the District Courts. All courts exercise both criminal and civil jurisdiction.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

The Privy Council is the final appeal tribunal for New Zealand. Appeals to the Privy Council may be brought by leave of the court appealed from, or by special leave of the Privy Council itself. Leave is granted as of right from any final judgement of the Court of Appeal, where the matter in dispute amounts to the value of NZ$5,000 or more, or directly or indirectly involves some claim to property, or some civil right exceeding that value. The Privy Council has a discretionary power to grant special leave in criminal cases. Such leave is not often granted in criminal appeals from New Zealand.

The Court of Appeal

The highest appeal court in New Zealand, the Court of Appeal, has existed since 1846 and is constituted by the Judicature Amendment Act 1957.

Its primary function is to settle the law of New Zealand and to reconcile conflicting decisions of the other courts. It hears and determines ordinary appeals from the High Court. Certain other proceedings in the lower courts may, by order of the High Court, be removed to the Court of Appeal. The court does, however, also have some original jurisdiction.

The High Court

The High Court of New Zealand was first established (as the Supreme Court) in 1841. It has all the jurisdiction which may be necessary for a court to administer the laws of New Zealand.

The High Court exercises jurisdiction in cases of major crimes, Admiralty proceedings, the more important civil claims, appeals from lower courts and tribunals, and reviews of administrative actions. The High Court also has inherent jurisdiction to punish for contempt of court. It consists of the Chief Justice and 32 other judges, as prescribed by the Judicature Act 1908.

Specialist courts

These consist of the Employment Court, the Family Courts, Youth Courts, Maori Land Court and Maori Appellate Court.


Over 100 tribunals, authorities, boards, committees or related bodies exist to deal with other disputes, largely between individuals, on matters such as environmental planning, economic issues, scientific and technical matters, censorship, welfare and benefits, taxation, occupational licensing and discipline, activity licensing (e.g. shop trading hours) and company registration.

Jury service

Every person between the ages of 20 and 65 years (inclusive) is eligible for jury service, with some exceptions. Those who are not appropriate to serve on a jury because of their occupations are ineligible. A person may also be excused if jury service would cause serious inconvenience a or hardship, or if it is against a person's religious beliefs to serve on a jury. Also precluded are people with recent prison records and those who have been imprisoned for more than three years.


The Legal Services Act 1991 brought together in one statute the civil and criminal legal aid schemes and aligned them as far as possible. It also gave statutory recognition to the duty solicitor scheme and to community law centres. The Act established a new administrative structure – the Legal Services Board and District Committees. The Board is responsible for the legal aid budget. Its role is, however, wider. It can, for instance, investigate other ways of providing legal services to the public and set up pilot schemes.

Community Law Centres and Neighbourhood Law Offices These offices and centres are set up to provide legal advice to people who cannot afford to go to a law firm. They are funded from a variety of sources and central government.


When I came to this country in 1972, everyone was still talking about a 'big' murder case a few years earlier, when a man named Arthur Allen Thomas was convicted of murdering two people. He has since been acquitted.

New Zealand was in those days a very 'safe' country.

People used to leave their house doors unlocked, and in fact some had never had a house key! People used to leave their cars unlocked when out shopping: there was never a problem with stealing.

Today, unfortunately, New Zealand has caught up with the rest of the world, and its crime rate is much increased. The sad thing is that the nation has become 'accustomed' to crime. New Zealanders today hardly bat an eyelid when hearing of people 'going berserk' and murdering several family members (this has happened about three times over the last two or three years). What has happened to this once 'safe' country?

According to Statistics New Zealand, in the year 2000/2001 total recorded crime dropped by 1.9%. Seven and a half thousand more crimes were solved than the previous year. There were 10,500 fewer burglaries, and more were solved; but violent offending increased by 8.6%. Speeding offences rose from 124,170 to 176,684, and the road death toll for the year ended 30 June 2002 was 430, the lowest in nearly four decades.

Traffic offenders

New Zealand is a panel-beater's dream. I had never seen so many cars with body damage until I came to New Zealand. The trouble, of course, is with the drivers – not the cars! The attitude of drivers here has to be seen to be believed. They drive very aggressively, hoot behind you when you obey the speed limits, and drive up right behind you to make you hurry. This is probably one of the worst features of some drivers here. Nor will they let you in when you are trying to get into the main stream of traffic from a side road; the game seems to be to see how many drivers you can block! Cutting close in front is another favourite game.

Consequently the police have a big job to keep an eye on traffic offences. Drink drivers have recently been blitzed by the police department, with road blocks to check on drunks, who are then asked to blow into a little bag; if the crystals in the tube change colour, they can tell roughly how much drink has been consumed.

The penal system

New Zealand's penal system has evolved to protect the community from offenders both through deterrence and reformation, with increasing emphasis on rehabilitation in recent years.

The main sources available to the courts for dealing with offenders, other than by imprisonment, are fines, reparation, supervision, community services, periodic detention and community care. On conviction for murder a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment is imposed.

The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1961.

Capital punishment was removed as a penalty for all crimes (latterly treason and mutiny in the armed forces) in 1989.

The most common violent offences by males receiving custodial sentences were aggravated robbery (18% of violent offenders and 9% of all prison inmates) and injuring and wounding (13% of violent offenders and 7% of all inmates).

The most significant major offence groups represented for females were property offences (40%) and violent offences (34%). A smaller proportion of female prisoners were incarcerated for drug offences (16%) and six females were in custody for traffic offences. The most common violent offences for which female offenders were given custodial sentences were murder (25% of all violent offenders and 8% of all inmates) and injuring and wounding (26% of violent offenders and 8% of all inmates).

Nearly half (48%) of the cases which resulted in a custodial sentence for some offence other than a traffic offence related to Maori offenders, 43% to European offenders and 7% to Pacific Islanders, according to the New Zealand Statistics Department.

The police

On 1 July 1992 the New Zealand Police and the Ministry Transport's Traffic Safety Service merged to concentrate resources and target serious traffic offences.

The national administrative and operational control of the New Zealand Police is vested in a commissioner who is responsible to the Government through the Minister of Police. For operational purposes, New Zealand is divided into six police regions, each controlled by an assistant commissioner.

Regional commanders are responsible for the general preservation of peace and order, for the prevention of offences, and for the detection of offenders in their areas of command. Policing is maintained by a system of mobile patrols and foot 'beats', coordinated by communications network.

The police are responsible for enforcing the criminal law principally the Crimes Act and the Summary Offences Act, but also various other statutes such as the Arms Act, Sale of Liquor Act, Gaming and Lotteries Act, Misuse of Drugs Act and Transport Act.

The summary prosecution of criminal offences investigated by the police is undertaken in the District Court by trained police prosecutors. Police in country districts in some cases hold additional appointments such as registrars and bailiffs at District Courts, probation officers and honorary fishery officers.

The ordinary police are not armed. The armed offenders squads are a group of specially equipped and trained officers who deal with offenders with weapons. About 200 members throughout the country perform armed offenders squad duties on a part-time basis.

The special tactics group is made up of selected members of armed offenders squads who are specially trained to deal with any acts of terrorism. The only act of terrorism in New Zealand was in 1985 when a team of French saboteurs entered the country illegally by sea.

'The Rainbow Warrior' – W July 1985 On a peaceful winter's night in July 1985, two frogmen slipped into the cold waters of Auckland Harbour. They attached two explosives to the hull of The Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of Greenpeace, and hurried away.

There was a party on board, a birthday celebration attended by 30 people. The first explosion was felt and lights went out and the ship started to list, everyone got off the ship except for the photographer Fernando Pereira; he decided that he had time to rescue his camera equipment. The second explosion came, and the ship went down with Fernando.


These are some key New Zealand laws to know:

  • The legal drinking age is 20 years of age.
  • Traffic travels on the left-hand side of the road. Cyclists must wear safety helmets.
  • Motorcyclists must wear crash helmets and always display their lights.
  • The wearing of seat belts in vehicles is compulsory.
  • Speed limits: 100 km/h for cars, motorcycles, vans and light vehicles; 90 km/h for buses, heavy motor and articulated vehicles; 80 km/h for school buses and any vehicles towing trailers.

The major cause of accidents on the roads is excess alcohol and exceeding the speed limit.

Vehicle inspections

All vehicles using the roads must be inspected regularly to ensure their mechanical and structural fitness. They are inspected every six months, but vehicles first registered since 1 December 1985 and less than three years of age may be inspected every twelve months. Most lightweight vehicles are required to have a 'Warrant of Fitness' which can be issued at approved garages or at Testing Stations.

Old-fashioned courtesies

Petrol stations in New Zealand are very much serve yourself, but you can still get service. I was astonished whilst on a trip to England recently to find that my dear old Mum, who is in her 80s, had to fill up her own car with petrol.

Importing your car

There are costs involved in bringing your car into New Zealand, and these costs depend mainly on the country in which your car was manufactured.

  • If, for instance, your car was manufactured in the United Kingdom you will be charged a duty based on the price paid for that car of 20% (less depreciation).
  • For cars manufactured in any other country, there will be a duty based on the price you paid for the car, less depreciation, of 35%.
  • First time immigrants will not be charged duty if they have owned the car for twelve months before coming to New Zealand.

In some circumstances – even with the depreciation formula being applied – this valuation based on price paid will make the all-up cost of the vehicle to the importer thousands of dollars higher than the equivalent used vehicle in New Zealand. This situation is related to the reduction of car prices as a result of large numbers of secondhand cars being imported into New Zealand. Collectors of Customs have authority to apply a method of valuation based upon the New Zealand market price of the vehicle where it can be established that the normal method of valuation will result in a substantial disadvantage to the importer.

This information is only a guide, and confirmation should be sought two to three months before shipping, by writing to:

The Collector of Customs –

  • PO Box 29, Manurewa, Auckland 1730. Tel: 64 9 275 1970.
  • PO Box 2218, Wellington 6015. Tel: 64 4 473 6099.
  • PO Box 440, Napier 4015. Tel: 64 6 835 5799.

Those are just a few advertisements taken at random. If you would like to see more, write to one of the newspaper offices and ask for a current issue to be sent to you.

  • The New Zealand Herald, Box 32, Auckland.
  • The Dominion, Box 1297, Wellington.
  • The Otago Times, Box 517, Dunedin.
  • The Christchurch Star, Box 1467, Christchurch.

The cost of one newspaper to the United Kingdom would be about NZ$12.55 airmail and $4.05 sea mail. Send your money with your request; payments may be made by cheque or credit card.

New intending residents

An immigrant, i.e. a person coming to New Zealand to take up permanent residence for the first time, is allowed duty and GST free entry of a motor vehicle, motorcycle and motor scooter under the conditions set out below. It is possible for more than one vehicle to qualify under this concession. To benefit you must be able to comply with all of the following requirements, supported by full documentary evidence:

  • You are coming for the first time to New Zealand to take up permanent residence (that is, you have never lived in New Zealand).
  • You must have personally owned and personally used the vehicle for at least one year before the date of your departure for New Zealand or the date on which the vehicle is surrendered for shipping, whichever is the earlier.
  • You must be importing the vehicle for your own personal use and not for sale, gift or disposal in any other way.
  • You must be prepared to give a written undertaking that if you sell or dispose of the vehicle within two years of the date of its importation, you will pay an amount equal to the duty and GST which would otherwise be payable.

The terms of the above concessions are legal requirements as set out in the Tariff of New Zealand. Unless you can satisfy the Customs that all these requirements have been complied with, full duty and GST will be payable. If you require an assessment of the amount of duty and GST payable on your car, please obtain a copy of Customs Notice No. 6. Private Motor Vehicle Imports.

This Notice explains how you should calculate the value for duty and how to determine the charges payable on the vehicle.

Steam cleaning

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries require that all used vehicles entering New Zealand are steam cleaned to prevent the introduction of animal and plant diseases and pests, except used vehicles from Australia if on inspection at the port of entry they are found to be clean.

To avoid delay in New Zealand, vehicles may be steam cleaned immediately prior to shipment and a Certificate of Steam Cleaning produced to the Agriculture Quarantine Service on arrival. An inspection of the vehicle is required before release to ensure that cleaning has been adequate. This will be carried out at an approved area.

Vehicles not steam cleaned before loading, or found to be contaminated on arrival, will be cleaned in New Zealand and reinspected before release. The cost of having your car steam cleaned here is approximately NZ$44 which includes Goods and Services Tax.

We shipped our car out to New Zealand – it took approximately five weeks to arrive.

Left-hand drive vehicles

Under the Customs Import Prohibition Order (No. Two) 1952, there is a restriction on the importation of left-hand drive vehicles. Before shipping a left-hand drive vehicle to New Zealand you must obtain approval to import from the Ministry of Transport, Land Transport Division, 1 Queen Street, Private Bag 106 602, New Zealand. Tel: 64 0800 108 809.

The'infernal'combustion engine

Cars are one of the biggest threats to the global environment. The transport sector is estimated to be responsible for 40% of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealand has the second highest rate of cars per capita in the world, with petrol consumption increasing by 4% a year. Because of the relatively small population and spread of the towns and cities, it is not always possible to use public transport, hence the high use of private vehicles.


New Zealand is relatively free of pests and beasties, and intends to keep it that way! Its geographical isolation has provided a natural barrier against many of the world's more serious agricultural pests and diseases. Strict quarantine laws are in place to prevent this, and are enforced by uniformed officers who carry out inspections at seaports and airports.

There are heavy penalties for concealing dutiable goods from customs, for making false declarations, and for presenting false documentation such as false receipts. People who knowingly bring restricted items into New Zealand and do not declare them will be prosecuted and will be subject to severe penalties and forfeit of goods.

Prepare to be checked

If you are bringing camping gear, tramping shoes, farm work clothing etc you must declare these to the MAP people at the Customs counter at the airport. They can then be carefully inspected to ensure they are free from any harmful substances.

Only recently two Russian cargo ships were suspected of carrying Asian gypsy moth eggs, which would have been laid whilst the ship was in an overseas port. The MAP had to inspect every inch of one of the vessels where some eggs were found on a packing case, and the other ship was not allowed into New Zealand ports because it wasn't considered to be 'clean'. If the eggs got into New Zealand they would very rapidly establish themselves in this country; since there are 'ideal' breeding conditions, these moths could devastate New Zealand's forests.

You might think there would be no harm in bringing in your favourite pot of jam or honey, a cutting from your special rose bush, and you might even think that your family goldfish wouldn't cause a tragedy. It would – these things would be destroyed on your arrival. So why not find them a good home before you leave? The same applies to the cat and the canary – don't think you can smuggle them in.

Prohibited goods

The following are prohibited, and you will need special CITES certification to bring them into New Zealand:

  • Ivory in any form, that includes jewellery, ornaments, etc.
  • Eggs and egg products, dried egg powder, instant meal products and egg cartons.
  • Freshwater fish including salmon and trout, except canned.
  • Honey including pollen, honeycombs, beeswax.
  • Meat and meat products, fresh or cooked, including small goods except canned products.
  • Popcorn (unpopped).
  • Leis and Lei materials (Pacific island garlands).
  • Plants live, dried, including pot plants and plant cuttings (except with correct certification).
  • Straw packaging. Straw handcrafts may be allowed after examination and treatment.
  • Animals, domestic pets, birds, fish, insects and fertilised eggs.
  • Biological cultures and organisms.
  • Clam shells and coral in any form, including jewellery, curios and souvenirs.
  • Turtle and tortoise shells, including jewellery, souvenirs, hand crafts and curios.

Restricted goods

The following items are restricted and must be declared on arrival, when they will be examined:

  • Coconuts including unprocessed product and husks.
  • Dairy products, cheeses, milk, milk powder, butter, milk-based baby foods.
  • Saltwater fish, fresh, dried and frozen, all species.
  • Fruit, fresh, dried, frozen or cooked.
  • Herbs and spices in any form, including when used in medicines.
  • Honey from Niue.
  • Mushrooms, fresh or dried.
  • Noodles and rice including processed and instant meal products.
  • Nuts, unprocessed and raw.
  • Vegetables, fresh, dried, frozen or cooked.
  • Bamboo, cane, rattan, basketware and mats in any form.
  • Bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers.
  • Cut flowers, dried flowers and leaves.
  • Pine cones and pot pourri, including natural and decorative products.
  • Seeds in any form, including commercially packaged.
  • Animal remedies, including vaccines, pet and stock foods.
  • Artefacts, including wooden carvings, figurines, shields, drums, spears and masks.
  • Camping equipment, including clothing and footwear.
  • Clothing, equipment and footwear used on farms or where animals are present (including slaughter houses) and shearing equipment.
  • Feathers, bones, horns and tusks in any form.
  • Furs, skins and hunting trophies.
  • Saddles and riding equipment, including clothing, footwear and grooming equipment.
  • Soil and water in any form, including religious items.
  • Stuffed animals and reptiles.
  • Wool (unprocessed) and animal hair, including yarns, crafted rugs and apparel.

Remember, by complying with these regulations you are helping New Zealand to protect its $8 billion horticultural industries which could be devastated by dangerous pests and diseases.

All fresh fruit, vegetables and living plant matter must have an International Phytosanitary Certificate (IPC) before they can be brought into New Zealand. Such goods arriving without the necessary documents will be destroyed or shipped to their country of origin at the passenger's expense.

For further clarification on these matters, you could contact the New Zealand Immigration Office or Embassy nearest to you, or contact:

  • The Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, Ray Emery Drive, Mangere, Auckland 1701. Tel: 64 9 275 5668.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, Box 2526, Wellington 6001.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, Box 54, Kaitaia 0500. Tel: 64 09 408 0900.

Bringing in animals

If you are from the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Hawaii or Australia, and your dog or cat has been born in that country, then there are no quarantine requirements, only health tests which must be done before coming to New Zealand.

If, however, you are from a country other than the above, then there are strict quarantine requirements. Your animal will have to be quarantined in England for six months plus two months residency, or in Hawaii for four months, with two months residency, before being allowed into New Zealand. For further clarification or any further queries please contact one of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries offices given above.

Bringing in drugs

Do not import drugs into New Zealand. The importation of drugs could result in your imprisonment. Be extremely wary of carrying packages or baggage for strangers.


What protection is there for a potential secondhand car  buyer?

A motor vehicle securities register is administered by the Department of Justice; this is called Autocheck. A consumer considering buying a vehicle can phone the register toll free to check if any security interest is registered against the vehicle.

Can I drive in New Zealand on an overseas licence?

A valid driver's licence can be used for one year in New Zealand; the owner must then take a written and oral test in order to obtain a New Zealand driver's licence.