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Criminal & traffic law

Overview of how the criminal courts work

The four offence categories for different levels of seriousness

Category 1 offences: Fines or community-based sentences only

Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 71

These are offences where you can only be fined, or sentenced to a community-based sentence like community work or supervision, rather than imprisonment. Your case will be seen at the District Court, and usually by a Justice of the Peace or a Community Magistrate rather than a judge.

An example of a Category 1 offence is careless driving (that doesn’t cause injury or death).

Category 2 offences: Less than two years’ imprisonment

Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 72

These are offences with a maximum penalty of less than two years in prison. If you plead not guilty, your trial will be in front of a judge sitting without a jury. Usually this will be in the District Court.

There are offences in Category 2 where a company or other corporate body (not a person) can be punished by a fine but where the punishment for a person committing that same offence would be up to two years’ imprisonment.

Category 2 offences include common assault or a first or second drink driving conviction.

Category 3 offences: Two or more years’ imprisonment

Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 73

These are offences with a maximum penalty of a prison term of two years or more (but excluding Category 4 offences). Usually these are heard by the District Court. You have the option of either being tried by a judge alone or having a jury trial.

Category 3 offences could include aggravated assault, threatening to kill, dangerous driving or a third (or more) drink driving conviction.

Note: Usually if you’re charged with a Category 3 offence you have to choose whether or not to have a jury trial at the time that you plead not guilty, which will usually be within three weeks after being charged. So it’s very important that you get good legal advice very early on.

Category 4 offences: Very serious crimes

Criminal Procedure Act 2011, ss 6, 74

These are the most serious offences, including murder, manslaughter, torture and terrorism offences. They’re dealt with in the High Court. Usually there’ll be a jury trial, but a judge-alone trial can be ordered in some cases.

The Category 4 offences are set out in Schedule 1 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011.

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The criminal courts

Where to go for more support

Community Law

Your local Community Law Centre can provide you with free initial legal advice.

Find your local Community Law Centre online: www.communitylaw.org.nz/our-law-centres

Access the free “Lag Law: Your Rights Inside Prison and on Remand” book. This book answers heaps of common questions you might have if you’re going to prison, in prison, or getting out of prison.

Online: communitylaw.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Lag-Law-text-2021-1.pdf
Email for a hard copy: publications@wclc.org.nz
Phone: Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley – 04 499 2928

Ministry of Justice

The Ministry of Justice provides useful information about court procedure for criminal matters.

Website: www.justice.govt.nz/courts/criminal

Paying your fines

You can learn about, check or pay your fines (infringement and court-imposed) by phone or online. Unpaid fines can stop you leaving New Zealand – use Ministry of Justice’s fine checks form to find out if you have outstanding debt.

Website: www.justice.govt.nz/fines
Phone: 0800 4 FINES (0800 434 637)

Fine checks form: www.justice.govt.nz/fines/find-out-if-you-have-a-fine-or-check-your-balance-online/fines-check-form

Department of Corrections

The Department of Corrections website has helpful information for offenders and their whānau. It provides insight into the procedure before sentencing, while in prison and on parole.

Website: www.corrections.govt.nz

Restorative Practices Aotearoa

Restorative Practices Aotearoa provides information on when restorative justice may be appropriate, and where in New Zealand it is available.

Website: www.restorativejusticeaotearoa.org.nz
Email: admin@rpa.org.nz
Phone: 0800 RJA INC (0800 752 462)

Information for victims

Victims Information

Victims Information provides help to victims of crime, their whānau or friends to deal with the practical and emotional effects of a crime. It also provides information to help victims understand the legal and court process.

Website: www.victimsinfo.govt.nz
Phone: 0800 650 654

Manaaki Tāngata – Victim Support

Victim Support provides a free, nationwide support service for people affected by crime, trauma, and suicide in New Zealand. They help clients to find safety, healing, and justice after crime and other traumatic events.

Website: www.victimsupport.org.nz
Phone: 0800 VICTIM (0800 842 846)

Victim notifications register

Victim notification gives victims of serious crime, who are registered on the victim notification register, a way to stay informed about the person who offended against them.

Website: www.corrections.govt.nz/information_for_victims/victim_notification_register

Also available as a book

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