Chapter 1 - Jurisdiction of the High Court


From its establishment (as the Supreme Court) in 1841 the High Court had conferred on it all the common law, equitable, and probate jurisdictions exercised by the superior courts of England at that time. This included an inherent jurisdiction that is most accurately described as a reserve or fund of powers, or a residual source on which the court may draw whenever it is just and equitable to do so.5 Inherent jurisdiction allows the High Court to deal with issues in areas of law that are not covered in statute or rules of law. These powers were affirmed (but not created) by section 16 of the Judicature Act.6

In New Zealand only the High Court has this inherent jurisdiction. Other courts, including the District Courts, have the particular jurisdiction conferred on them by statute. In the case of District Courts this is now quite broad. The District Courts Act 1947 gives District Courts the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court in proceedings up to the monetary limits ($200,000) specified in that Act.7 District Courts do also have some inherent powers to enable them to do what is necessary to exercise their statutory functions, powers and duties, and to control their own processes.8

In contrast, the High Court’s jurisdiction is unlimited. By “unlimited” it is meant that the court’s jurisdiction extends to all causes of action (except where expressly excluded by statute) and unlimited in amount.9 It has full equitable jurisdiction over trusts in addition to the specific statutory powers conferred on it by the Trustee Act 1956. This chapter considers the court’s jurisdiction and powers over trusts. The topics examined here are:

  • breach of trust claims;
  • review of the exercise of trustee discretion;
  • review under section 68 of the Act; and
  • the inherent supervisory powers of the High Court.

See Jack Jacob “The Inherent Jurisdiction of the Court” (1970) CLP 23 at 51.

Section 16 states that: “The court shall continue to have all the jurisdiction which it had on the coming into operation of this Act and all judicial jurisdiction which may be necessary to administer the laws of New Zealand”.

Section 34 of the District Courts Act 1947 now gives District Courts full equitable jurisdiction within the monetary limits set by section 29.

McMenamin v Attorney-General [1985] 2 NZLR 274 (CA).

Laws of New Zealand “Courts” (online ed) at [133].