Supreme Court of New Zealand

This article is about the court established in 2004. For an earlier Supreme Court, see High Court of New Zealand.
Supreme Court of New Zealand
Te Kōti Mana Nui (Māori)
Established 1 January 2004
Country New Zealand
Location 85 Lambton Quay, Wellington
Composition method Appointed by the Governor-General on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II on the advice of the Prime Minister (Chief Justice) and Attorney-General (Justices)
Authorized by Supreme Court Act 2003
Judge term length Retire at age of 70 years (Judicature Act 1908, s 13)
Number of positions 5
Chief Justice
Currently The Rt Hon. Dame Sian Elias, GNZM, PC, QC
Since 1 January 2004
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
New Zealand

The Supreme Court of New Zealand (in Māori: Te Kōti Mana Nui) is the highest court and the court of last resort in New Zealand, having formally come into existence on 1 January 2004. The court sat for the first time on 1 July 2004. It replaced the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, based in London. It was created with the passing of the Supreme Court Act 2003, on 15 October 2003. At the time, the creation of the Supreme Court and the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council were controversial constitutional changes in New Zealand.

It should not be confused with New Zealand's "old" Supreme Court, which was a superior court that was established in 1841 and continued in 1980 as the High Court of New Zealand. The name was changed in anticipation of the eventual creation of a final court of appeal for New Zealand that would be called the "Supreme Court".


The inaugural bench (with the exception of the Chief Justice, who had automatic appointment) were the most senior judges of the New Zealand Court of Appeal at the time. Their appointment to the new Court was said to have been based on seniority and merit. The maximum bench under statute is six judges.[1]

Several acting Judges have also been appointed to sit whenever a permanent judge was unable to do so due to illness or a conflict of interest. These judges were appointed from the retired judges of the Court of Appeal and including Justices Sir John Henry, Sir Ted Thomas, former President of the Court of Appeal Sir Ivor Richardson and former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum. Acting judges only sit on substantive appeals, and not applications for leave, due to the requirement for appeals to be heard en banc by five judges.

On 4 May 2005, Attorney General Michael Cullen announced the appointment of Justice Sir John McGrath of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court bench as its sixth permanent judge. On 21 February 2006, the Honourable Sir Noel Anderson (at the time President of the Court of Appeal) was appointed to the Supreme Court. Thus the promotion of the most senior Court of Appeal member has continued. This practice was broken with the appointment of Justice Bill Wilson in December 2007 after having served less than a year as a judge of the Court of Appeal.

Entrance to Supreme Court building


While the suggestion of ending appeals to the Privy Council had been around since the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947,[2] proposals to end appeals to the Privy Council began in the late 1970s, when a Royal Commission on the judiciary canvassed arguments for replacing the Privy Council.[3] In the early 1980s, Minister of Justice Jim McLay suggested their abolition.[4] Proposals for an indigenous final appellate court can be traced back to 1985. In 1996, Paul East, Attorney-General of the Bolger government, proposed to end the status of the Privy Council as the country's highest court of appeal. The proposal got as far as a Bill being introduced into Parliament. However, this Bill met with little support from within the National Party, and the Bill was not carried over by the next Parliament following the 1996 general election.[4]

The policy was resurrected in 1999 by the Fifth Labour Government of 1999  2008. A discussion paper, Reshaping New Zealand's Appeal Structure attracted 70 submissions.[3] A year later a Ministerial Action Group was formed to assist Ministers in designing the purpose, structure and make-up of a final court of appeal. The Group's report, Replacing the Privy Council: A New Supreme Court was published in April 2002,[5] before the general election a few months later.[3]

Upon the re-election at the New Zealand general election, 2002, as part of the Labour Party's election manifesto, the Attorney-General, Labour's Margaret Wilson, introduced the Supreme Court Bill to create the Supreme Court and abolish appeals to the Privy Council on 9 December 2002.[3] A Campaign for the Privy Council was established to lobby against the abolition of appeals. Many business and community groups joined the opposition to the ending of appeals. The Monarchist League of New Zealand opposed the abolition of appeals, stating

Most lawyers are opposed to the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council, and doubtless will continue to do so until a more satisfactory justification is given for the abandonment of a tribunal which costs the New Zealand taxpayer nothing, and which gives us access to some of the finest legal minds in the common law world. Many Maori also see this proposal as a retrograde step, both by removing an impartial tribunal to which they have hitherto been able to appeal, and by cutting another link with the Crown.[6]

Margaret Wilson argued in favour of the Bill, stating:

When reviewing the legal needs of the community appeals to the Privy Council seemed increasingly anomalous. It was anomalous because of the narrow range of cases that actually were appealed to the Privy Council. The Privy Council itself recognised that some cases it considered were better settled by a New Zealand court and referred back for decision. Its precedent value was therefore quite limited. Few cases got to the Privy Council because of the costs involved, and because in some areas, such as employment and environment law, the statutes barred such appeals.[7]
Old High Court and Supreme Court of New Zealand in Wellington in 2015.

Select Committee

At select committee, the Bill attracted numerous submissions for and against creating the Supreme Court. Notable supporters of the Supreme Court were former Privy Councillor Lord Cooke of Thorndon and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, while most senior lawyers were opposed to the change.[3] The Monarchist League complained the majority of members of the select committee were motivated by a "republican agenda".[8]

Third reading

The Supreme Court Act 2003 passed its third reading by a relatively small margin – the governing Labour and Progressive parties, supported by the Greens, voted in favour, while the National, New Zealand First, ACT New Zealand, and United Future parties voted against. It received Royal Assent on 17 October 2003, with commencement on 1 January 2004.

In 2008, National leader John Key (now Prime Minister) ruled out any abolition of the Supreme Court and return to the Privy Council.[9]

Referendum petition

After the Opposition parties unsuccessfully called for a national referendum on the matter, Auckland lawyer Dennis J Gates launched a petition for a non-binding citizens initiated referendum on 3 April 2003, asking the question "Should all rights of appeal to the Privy Council be abolished?".[10] The petition failed to gain the 310,000 signatures of registered electors needed and lapsed on 2 July 2004.


One issue that was particularly contentious as the Bill was being debated in Parliament was the appointment of judges to the Court, with opposition parties claiming that the Attorney-General would make partisan choices.[7] These concerns were because the entire bench was to be appointed simultaneously, and no clear statement had been made about how they would be selected. However, the level of concern was considerably lessened when Wilson announced that the appointments would be based on merit and seniority. Appointments to the Court were expected and unsurprising. The most senior Justices on the Court of Appeal were appointed to the new Court.


One of the grounds advanced for the creation of the Court was that it would allow more people to have access to the country's highest appellate court. From 1851 until 2002, the Privy Council made 268 decisions relating to New Zealand. In the ten years from 1992–2002, only 21 decisions had been allowed with respect to New Zealand.[5] The Supreme Court hears many more cases than were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council due to its jurisdiction being considerably broader. For example, cases in the areas of employment, criminal and family law can be heard by the Supreme Court, whereas previously cases in both areas of law could normally progress no further than the Court of Appeal. The proximity of the Court is another factor that is likely to contribute to it hearing an increased number of appeals and also allows appeals to be heard and determined considerable faster than under the former system.

The Court has heard many applications for leave. It has also heard many substantive appeals. Notable substantive cases include:


The Supreme Court building in Wellington
Old High Court building in Wellington

The Supreme Court sits in Wellington. Until the Court's new $80.7 million home was built, beside and expanding into the historic High Court building, the court was housed in temporary facilities located in the High Court in Wellington with offices located in Old Government Buildings. The building was formally opened on 18 January 2010 by Prince William.[11]


Unlike some other final appellate courts internationally, there is no automatic right of appeal to the Supreme Court of New Zealand. All appeals are first required to apply to the Court for leave to appeal. This is granted or declined based on a number of factors listed in the Supreme Court Act, with the overarching principle being that it must be necessary in the interests of justice for the Court to hear the appeal. Leave applications are normally determined by any two judges of the court based on the written submission of the parties without an oral hearing; however, the judges hearing the application can decide to hold an oral hearing if they wish.

This system is also in place in the United Kingdom where the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the highest court of appeal in the United Kingdom, also must grant leave for appeal for cases to be heard before it. The same is true for appeals to the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong. Similarly, most litigants seeking to appeal to the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Supreme Court of the United States, Supreme Court of Canada or High Court of Australia require leave before their case can be heard – although there are some exceptions to this in the latter three courts.


Since its foundation, the Supreme Court has been subject to "unprecedented public criticism".[12] The quality of several Supreme Court judgments have been criticised in New Zealand and overseas, and concerns expressed about the impact on the country's case law and international reputation. The major criticisms are the Supreme Courts' lack of experience and its membership being drawn initially from the Court of Appeal.[12] Defenders of the court argue that it has provided easier access to the courts. They also note that the argument that the court would not be independent has been disproved by the Supreme Court's willingness to overrule decisions of the Court of Appeal.[12]

Prior to abolition the Privy Council heard up to 12 cases from New Zealand a year.[12] From its creation through May 2012, the Supreme Court heard an average of 29 substantive appeals annually.[12]

List of Judges of the Supreme Court

Judge Took office Mandatory retirement[13]
1 Rt Hon. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias GNZM PC QC 1 January 2004[14] 13 March 2019
2 Hon. Justice Sir William Young KNZM QC 1 July 2010[15] 14 April 2022
3 Hon. Justice Dame Susan Glazebrook DNZM 6 August 2012[16] 8 February 2026
4 Hon. Justice Sir Terence Arnold KNZM QC 10 June 2013[17] 2017
5 Hon. Justice Sir Mark O'Regan KNZM 1 September 2014[18] 2023
6 Hon. Justice Dame Ellen France DNZM 22 July 2016[19] 2026

Former judges

Judge Took office Left office
Rt Hon. Justice Sir Thomas Gault KNZM QC 1 January 2004[20] February 2006
Rt Hon. Justice Sir Kenneth Keith ONZ KBE QC 1 January 2004[20] November 2005[21]
Rt Hon. Justice Sir Andrew Tipping KNZM 1 January 2004[20] 17 August 2012
Rt Hon. Justice Sir Peter Blanchard KNZM 1 January 2004[20] 7 June 2012
Hon. Justice Sir Noel Anderson KNZM QC 16 February 2006[22] 11 April 2008[23]
Hon. Justice Bill Wilson QC 1 February 2008[24] 5 November 2010[25]
Hon. Justice Sir Robert Chambers KNZM QC 1 February 2012[26] 21 May 2013[27]
Hon. Justice Sir John McGrath KNZM QC 3 May 2005[28] 10 March 2015

See also


  1. Chris Finlayson (9 June 2010). "New Supreme Court judge and Court of Appeal President announced". Beehive.
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Volume 279. Clerk of the House of Representatives. 17 October – 27 November. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Chris Eichbaum, Richard Shaw (2005). Public Policy In New Zealand – Institutions, Processes and Outcomes. Pearson. ISBN 1-877258-93-8.
  4. 1 2 Colin James, ed. (2000), Building The Constitution, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, p. 162
  5. 1 2 "Replacing the Privy Council: A New Supreme Court" (PDF). New Zealand. April 2002.
  6. Monarchist League of New Zealand (9 December 2002). "Monarchist League Against Supreme Court Law". Retrieved 9 August 2011.
  7. 1 2 Margaret Wilson. "Who Makes the Law? The Role of the Supreme Court in New Zealand's Constitutional Arrangements" (PDF).
  8. Monarchist League of New Zealand (17 September 2003). "Monarchist Disappointed Supreme Crt Bill".
  9. Jane Clifton (1 November 2008). Leaders Loosen Up. The Listener.
  10. "Petition for a Citizens' Initiated Referendum" (PDF). 2003.
  11. New Zealand Government (2 November 2009). "Prime Minister announces visit of Prince William".
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Paul Taylor (6 May 2012). "Justice in the firing line". Herald on Sunday.
  13. Judges are required to retire at 70 years of age pursuant to section 13 of the Judicature Act 1908.
  14. Elias, who was already Chief Justice, became head of the new Supreme Court by operation of the Supreme Court Act 2003 coming into force on 1 January 2004.
  15. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 17 June 2010. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  16. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 2 August 2012. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  17. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court" (PDF). New Zealand Government Gazette. 27 June 2013. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
  18. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 26 June 2014. Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  20. 1 2 3 4 "Appointment of Judges of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 20 November 2003. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  21. "Appointment of acting Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 17 November 2005. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  22. "Appointment of acting Judge of the Supreme Court (sic)". New Zealand Government Gazette. 23 February 2006. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  23. "Retention of the Title 'The Honourable'". New Zealand Government Gazette. 3 April 2008. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  24. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 24 January 2008. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  25. "Complaints Against Justice Wilson Dismissed". Fuseworks Media. 22 October 2010. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  26. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court". New Zealand Government Gazette. 12 January 2012. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
  27. "Supreme Court Judge dies". Radio New Zealand. 22 May 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  28. "Appointment of Judge of the Supreme Court – The Honourable John Joseph McGrath". New Zealand Government Gazette. 12 May 2005. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
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