A criminal case begins when the police, or other prosecuting authority, accuse someone of breaking the law.

The person who’s been accused (the defendant) then appears in court. If they deny the charge and enter a plea of not guilty, the case is adjourned, so the judge has time to hear all the evidence against them.

If the defendant enters a plea of guilty, or the charge against them is later proved beyond reasonable doubt, they are usually convicted and the judge gives them a sentence.

If it’s a less serious charge the judge might hear it alone. More serious charges are heard before a judge and jury.

The majority of criminal cases are heard in the district court. Some serious criminal cases, like murder are heard by the high court.

If an appeal is made it goes to a court higher than the one the case was heard in. For example, a case in the district court would likely go to the high court in appeal.

A decision by a higher court is binding on lower courts and decisions of the supreme court, as the final court of appeal, are binding on all other courts.

Read more about the structure of the courts and the process on the Courts of New Zealand website.

Youth and the courts

The Youth Court deals with people mostly between the ages of 12 and 16 years of age. If it’s an especially serious crime the child or young person may be referred to the district court (or even referred to the high court) and they could be sentenced like an adult.

Child Youth and Family also work with young offenders.