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How criminal cases begin: Pleading guilty/not guilty, bail, and name suppression

Your first day at court: Overview

Your first day at court is known as your “first appearance”. Court usually starts at 9am – unless you’ve been arrested that day or week and are waiting in the cells (usually people held in the cells appear around 12-1pm).

If you are pleading guilty, or are at court for sentencing, a case review, or a family violence court matter, court will usually start at 10am. If you’re unsure, you can call the District Court and ask what time you are expected, or check the paper your bail bond or summons, which will state the time you are expected at court.

Someone who has been arrested and charged with an offence by the police must be brought before a court as soon as reasonably possible.

  • bail bond – the paper you signed at your last appearance that contains the conditions you must follow until sentencing
  • summons – the letter you were sent a few days after the incident.

Can I represent myself in court?

You are entitled to represent yourself in court. However you do need to be confident in your ability to prepare and manage your case through the whole court process. The Ministry of Justice has various brochures to assist you.

Getting help from a lawyer

You can get free or partly free advice and representation from a lawyer if you can’t afford to hire one yourself. Here are the main schemes for this:

  • The Police Detention Legal Aid scheme (“PDLA”): for when you’ve just been arrested.
  • The duty lawyer: for your first day in court, and other times where you don’t have a lawyer to represent you. You can have a duty lawyer each time you appear, but this will be a different person each time.
  • Legal Aid: for ongoing cases.

To find out more about these different schemes, see the chapter “Legal Aid and other legal help“.

How can a duty lawyer help me?

At court, if you do not have a lawyer, you should ask to see a duty lawyer. The duty lawyer is a free lawyer who will help you (“the defendant”) and will represent you on your first day in court. The duty lawyer will help by getting information from the police about the charge (“disclosure”) and advising you about the seriousness of the charge. The duty lawyer will also advise whether you qualify for Legal Aid or not. If you do qualify they may help you apply for Legal Aid.

The duty lawyer can also help you by putting the case off to another date (“remanding” the case to another date). That date will be in either two or three weeks. A remand means that you have not entered a plea to the charge yet.

On that next date you will be required to enter a plea to the charge. If you don’t, a plea of not guilty will usually be entered for you by the court.

If you are pleading guilty, and it is a less serious offence that the duty lawyer is comfortable dealing with on the day, the matter will be dealt with by the judge on the same day (usually this starts at 10 am).

See ‘Entering your plea: guilty or not guilty’ for information on how pleading works.

How can a registrar help me when my case is remanded?

A registrar (rather than a judge) can organise your remand (when you don’t plead guilty) if both you and the police agree on the terms of the remand.

Some courts operate a registrar’s court. Other courts simply have a registrar’s kiosk. In areas where there is only a kiosk, you won’t have to enter a courtroom on your first appearance.

Who will be in the courtroom? Where do I stand?

The judge sits at the front of the court on a raised bench – you call the judge “Your Honour”. Directly below the judge is the registrar. The registrar is a court employee who handles the paperwork, calls out the cases and generally assists the judge.

Lawyers sit at the front section of the court with the police or crown prosecutor in the very front bench and the public sit at the back in the public gallery. There will be specialist agencies like probation officers, Restorative Justice co-ordinators or alcohol and drug co-ordinators. These roles should have a label on their desk or on the back of their chair.

The dock (where the defendant stands) is on one side of the courtroom, and there will be a police or prison officer beside it. If you are in custody you will be held in the cells and brought up to court by a police officer.

There may also be reporters in court and during trials witnesses give their evidence from the witness box. Court is open to the public except in certain very limited circumstances.

What time does court run?

Court starts at 10am, with a morning break from 11.30am to 11.45am. There is a lunch break from 1pm to 2.15pm, and then court will continue till 5pm (with a short afternoon break from 3.30pm -3.45pm).

Often cases are seen in a ‘first come first serve’ manner. After you have talked with the duty lawyer or your assigned lawyer, they will let the registrar know you are ready. You have to wait until you hear your name called out.

Note: Often people waiting in the foyer are called first, those in custody appearing by audio-visual link (AVL) are called around 11:45am and people who have been recently arrested or are in custody but appearing in person are called later in the day.

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The criminal courts

Where to go for more support

Community Law

www. communitylaw.org.nz

Your local Community Law Centre can provide free initial legal advice and information.

“Lag Law: Your rights inside prison and on release”


Lag Law answers heaps of common questions you might have if you’re going to prison, you’re in prison, or you’re getting out of prison. It talks about your rights in prison, and sets out the laws and rules that affect you when you’re put in prison.

Order hard copies from:
Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley
Phone: (04) 499 2928
Email: laglaw@wclc.org.nz

Ministry of Justice


The Ministry of Justice website has a range of pamphlets and other information on topics covered in this chapter. You can access this information online, or you can order hardcopies of the pamphlets from:

Phone: 0800 587 847
Email: publications@justice.govt.nz


Ministry of Justice Collections Unit – www.justice.govt.nz/fines

Phone: 0800 4 FINES (0800 434 637)
From overseas: +64 4 915 8586
From Australia: 1800 144 239 (toll free)

You can check or pay your fines by phone or online. The website has information about both infringement fines and court-imposed fines, and about reparations. The website also has information about District Court Collections Units.

Department of Internal Affairs – www.passports.govt.nz/what-you-need-to-renew-or-apply-for-a-passport/before-you-travel/

This webpage has information about paying your fines to avoid being stopped at the border.

Phone: 0800 PAYORSTAY (0800 729 677)

“Giving evidence” (Law Society pamphlet)


This pamphlet is for people who have to give evidence in court as a witness.

You can order hardcopies from the New Zealand Law Society:

Phone: (04) 472 7837
Email: pamphlets@lawsociety.org.nz

Department of Corrections


This website has information:

for offenders

for family and friends of offenders

about the Department of Corrections’ role in the community, including community work, supervision, home detention, and the role of probation officers

about the New Zealand Parole Board.

Victim Notification Register


This page on the Department of Corrections website has information about the victim notification register including, the process, how to apply, information victims can receive and how to make a complaint.

Restorative Practices Aotearoa


This website provides information on when Restorative Justice may be appropriate, and where in New Zealand Restorative Justice is available. You can also make an enquiry about Restorative Justice by filling out a form on their website.

Phone: 0800 RJA INC (0800 752 462)

Victim Support


Victim Support provides 24-hour support services to help New Zealanders rebuild their lives following a trauma or crisis.

Phone: 0800 842 846
Email: nationaloffice@victimsupport.org.nz

Victims Information


This is the website of the government’s “Victims Centre”. The site provides links to a range of services available to help victims deal with the practical and emotional effects of the crime, at each stage of the criminal and youth justice process.

Phone: 0800 650 654

Also available as a book

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