Chapter 3 - Jurisdiction of the District Courts

Jurisdiction conferred by District Courts Act

District Courts have only statutory jurisdiction. Historically, the equitable jurisdiction of District Courts was limited to certain specified matters. Section 34 of the District Courts Act 1947 now gives District Courts full equitable jurisdiction within the monetary limits of section 29, except where that jurisdiction is regulated by statute.82

Section 34 provides that:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, the courts shall have—

(a) the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court to hear and determine any proceeding (other than a proceeding in which the amount claimed or the value of the property claimed or in issue is more than $200,000):

(b) jurisdiction to hear and determine any proceeding for the dissolution or winding up of any partnership (whether or not the existence of the partnership is in dispute), where the whole assets of the partnership do not exceed in amount or value the sum of $200,000.

(2) Where jurisdiction in respect of any proceeding or class of proceeding is, by virtue of any provision of any Act (not being section 16 of the Judicature Act 1908) that relates expressly to that proceeding or class of proceeding, exercisable by the High Court or any other court (not being a District Court), District Courts shall not by virtue of subsection (1)(a) or section 29(1) have the equitable jurisdiction of the High Court in respect of that proceeding or class of proceeding.

(2A) Notwithstanding subsection (2), the District Courts shall have the power to make orders pursuant to section 49 of the Administration Act 1969….

Section 29(1) of the Act sets the monetary limits for proceedings in District Courts:

(1) The courts shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any proceeding where the debt, demand, or damages, or the value of the chattels claimed, is not more than $200,000, whether on balance of account or otherwise:provided that the courts shall not, except as in this Act provided, have jurisdiction to hear and determine—

(a) any proceeding for the recovery of land; or

(b) any proceeding in which the title to any franchise is in question.

District Courts are granted by section 34(1)(a) of the District Courts Act “the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court”, so long as “the amount claimed or the value of the property” at issue is no more than $200,000. Specific qualifications are imposed on District Courts’ equitable jurisdiction by section 34(2). Where an Act (other than section 16 of the Judicature Act 1908, the provision conferring general jurisdiction on the High Court) has conferred equitable jurisdiction on the High Court (or any other court) over a proceeding or class of proceeding, then District Courts have no jurisdiction over such proceeding. Most significantly for our review, this provision means that the powers granted to the High Court by the Trustee Act cannot be exercised by District Courts.

Before turning to that issue, it is useful to examine section 34(1)(a) more closely and consider what jurisdiction District Courts have in this area. What does “the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court” actually mean? The Commission suggests that the words can simply be given their natural meaning. District Courts have the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court but only up to the specified monetary limit. Within those monetary limits the courts have the same equitable jurisdiction to supervise and intervene when necessary in trusts as the High Court.

The current section 34 was enacted in 1992 and replaced a list of specific matters that previously defined the District Courts’ equitable jurisdiction. When the provision was introduced, the Minister of Justice said that it had become apparent that the equitable jurisdiction of the District Courts was not sufficiently wide and that to remedy this it “was therefore decided that the district courts should have the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court, with some exceptions.”83

District Courts have jurisdiction to determine breach of trust claims within their monetary limits.84 Included here are those cases where the court is being invited to review the exercise of a power or discretion by trustees.

As was discussed in chapter 1, the High Court has an inherent power to supervise the administration of trusts and control trustees. The High Court inherited from the courts of Chancery an inherent jurisdiction to supervise, and if necessary to intervene in, the administration of trusts.85 This supervisory jurisdiction means the High Court can, in appropriate circumstances, remove trustees and modify or even revoke trusts.86 There seems to be no case law on point, but it is unlikely that section 34(1)(a) would be found to have conferred these supervisory powers on the District Courts.

It is also appropriate to note here that the upper limit of $200,000 that currently applies to the amount that can be claimed or the value of the property that can be at issue is, in practice, a significant barrier to trust litigation being undertaken in in the District Court.87 Even most modest family trusts are likely to have assets well in excess of that amount, so disputes where the amount at issue is less than this figure are likely to be rare in practice.

Brookers Online Commentary - Civil Procedure: District Courts and Tribunals at [DC34.01].

(5 May 1992) 525 NZPD 8177.

Morris v Templeton (2000) 14 PRNZ 397 (CA).

Schmidt v Rosewood Trust Ltd [2003] 2 AC 709 at [51] and [66].

Although the High Court retains these supervisory powers, they have long been displaced for all practical purposes by provisions in the Trustee Act 1956 governing the removal, appointment and replacement of trustees and statutory powers covering the revocation and variation of trusts.

The Commission will raise the issue of the upper limit of the District Court’s jurisdiction generally when it releases an Issues Paper early next year as a part of its reference to review the Judicature Act 1908 and consolidate courts legislation.