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This article is focused on New Zealand law and explains issues from a Common law perspective.
How to sue someone in New Zealand
If you believe that you have a claim against someone and the person has refused to acknowledge it, you may be entitled to take the person to court.
Which court will I need to go to?
In New Zealand there is a system of three courts:
- the District Court, for claims less than $350,000
- the High Court, for claims over $350,000, and appeals from the District Court
- the Court of Appeal, for appeals from the High Court
There is also a limited right of appeal to the Privy Council.
If your claim is not more than $15,000 you may take your claim to the Disputes Tribunal (formerly the Small Claims Tribunal). This maximum is increased to $ 20,000 if both parties agree. See How to make a claim to the Disputes Tribunal.
The Disputes Tribunal is less formal than the District Court, and the parties represent themselves.
Do I have to take action within a certain time?
If you wish to begin court proceedings, you will need to do so within six years after the event that gave rise to your right to sue (this is called the "limitation period").
This rule applies to court proceedings generally, but many statutes set their own special limitation periods, which override the general rule. An example of this is that if you take action under the FAIR TRADING ACT 1986, the limitation period is three years.
What documents and fees will I need to file in court?
The person who starts court proceedings is called the "plaintiff". You will need to file a "Statement of Claim", which in the District Court carries a filing fee. The Statement of Claim sets out your view of the events that led to your claim and what you want the Court to do.
The other party - the "defendant" - will then need to file a "Statement of Defence", which contains his or her version of the events. A copy of this is sent to you, the plaintiff.
If the other party doesn't file a Statement of Defence, the plaintiff can apply for the court to find in his or her favour by default ("judgement by default").
There are various procedures that will or may apply to your case, such as:
- discovery and inspection of documents - "discovery" is the process whereby the parties obtain information from each other about the existence and contents of relevant documents; the parties arrange between themselves as to how and where the documents are inspected
- interrogatories - a method of discovering facts through one side putting written questions to the other
- joining other people to the case as plaintiffs or defendants
The court will fix a hearing date. At the hearing, the plaintiff presents his or her case first. The defendant can question any witnesses that the plaintiff calls.
Next, the debtor presents a defence and argues why judgement should not be given against him or her.
After the hearing the judge will issue a judgement.
What if I'm not satisfied with the court's decision?
There are certain rights of appeal to a higher court that may be exercised if you are unsatisfied with the result of your case.
- While you can represent yourself at court, hiring a lawyer can save you time and stress. A lawyer will be able to advise you on how strong your case is. He or she can also represent you in negotiations between the parties leading up to and during the hearing. You are able to settle with the other party out of court at any time before the court gives a judgement; a lawyer will advise you on the soundness of a decision to settle.
- You should consult a lawyer about whether your claim is within the relevant limitation period. It's therefore important that you see a lawyer as soon as you think you have a claim.
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