13.3Civil jurisdiction is divided between the High Court and District Court primarily on the basis of the monetary value of the matter in dispute. The District Court, like the High Court, has a broad civil and equitable jurisdiction. Over the years, since the Trustee Act 1956 came into force, the District Court’s jurisdiction has expanded in equity, as well as in other areas. Parliament gave the District Court its current broad equitable jurisdiction in 1992. Under section 34(1)(a) of the District Courts Act 1947, the District Court now has the same general equitable jurisdiction as the High Court providing the amount claimed or the value of the property in issue does not exceed the monetary threshold set.
13.4Conceptually, we consider that it makes little sense for the District Court to have the same general equitable jurisdiction as the High Court but not to have jurisdiction to exercise powers under a new Trusts Act. We consequently recommend that the District Court should have all the tools that are necessary to exercise its equitable jurisdiction effectively in respect of trusts and thus should have concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court for matters under a new Trusts Act. This is consistent with the District Court now being a court of general civil jurisdiction.
13.5Submissions on the Preferred Approach Paper largely opposed the proposal that the District Court should have jurisdiction under the new Act. Some did acknowledge that conceptually the proposal made good sense given the respective civil functions of the two courts. However, submitters from within the legal profession were concerned that the District Court does not currently have the capacity to adequately handle potentially complex trust litigation. Many of these submissions consequently argued that the High Court should retain exclusive jurisdiction. We have considered these submissions but have not been persuaded by them.
13.6We do not think that a special case can be made for trust law on the basis that it is inherently more complex than other areas of equity. Some trust cases do certainly involve complex issues, but so do other civil cases. In any event, many matters that will come before the courts under the proposed new Act will be straightforward and routine in nature. Many applications, such as approving the replacement of a retiring trustee or issuing a vesting order, will only rarely involve difficult legal questions.
13.7We accept that some matters do raise complex legal issues and are consequently better brought in the High Court. However, it is not necessary to reserve jurisdiction exclusively to the High Court on all matters just to deal with this group of proceedings. Our view is that, provided the High Court retains concurrent jurisdiction, and there are appropriate powers of transfer, this is sufficient to deal with the needs of complex trust cases.
13.9Submitters also questioned whether there would be any real cost advantage for litigants bringing proceedings in the District Court rather than the High Court. Some suggested that the cost differences are not significant. Our position is that irrespective of the comparative costs involved for litigants, concurrent jurisdiction still increases the range of options litigants will have, and in that sense at least, must improve access to justice. We think that for appropriate cases, the District Court should be available to provide a lower level dispute resolution option. While this matter does not come within our review, there has been significant concern expressed by the profession over aspects of the District Court procedure. Those matters are for the Rules Committee to address.
13.10Our recommendation allows litigants to elect to file their claims in the High Court rather than the District Court if they consider that the High Court should hear the case, even if the amount in dispute is within the District Court’s jurisdiction. Below we discuss our recommendations for transfer to the High Court where a party objects to the matter being determined in the District Court.
13.11Currently section 34(1)(a) of the District Courts Act grants the District Court “the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court”, so long as “the amount claimed or the value of the property claimed or in issue” is no more than $200,000. The upper limit of $200,000 set for the court’s equitable jurisdiction is the same as the upper limit set by the Act for all civil claims. Where proceedings do not involve a claim or dispute over money or property the District Court has the same equitable jurisdiction as the High Court.
13.13The District Court should also have jurisdiction, concurrent with the High Court, to determine any proceedings (such as those to appoint or remove a trustee) that do not involve any claim for money or any claim or issue over property. This means that irrespective of the value of the assets in the trust, that court could determine any proceeding or application under the new Act that does not involve any claim for money or property.
13.15Where the proceeding does not include any claim for money, relief or property, or the claim falls below the threshold for transfer as of right, section 43 provides that any transfer of the proceeding will be at the discretion of the District Court. The Court may order that the proceeding be transferred if it is satisfied that some important question of law or fact is likely to arise.
13.16Our recommendation is that section 43 (or its replacement) should apply to proceedings under the proposed Trusts Act.
13.17For completeness, we also note that nothing we recommend here alters the current jurisdiction of the Māori Land Court. Under section 237 of Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993 the Māori Land Court has, in relation to trusts to which that Act applies, the same powers and authorities as the High Court, including those conferred by statute. Jurisdiction under the new Trusts Act will therefore consequently flow through to the Māori Land Court which will retain its current jurisdiction.