Why Does Britain’s Privy Council Still Hear Appeals from New Zealand?

Yesterday, a New Zealander named Teina Pora and his lawyers boarded a flight to London. They are traveling there in a bid to quash Pora’s 1994 conviction for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. After exhausting his appeals in New Zealand, Pora has taken his case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (or, to use the formal phraseology, ‘Her Majesty in Council’). But why is a New Zealander bringing his case to London?

Topographic map of New Zealand courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Topographic map of New Zealand courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The answer lies in the Privy Council’s historic role as the highest court of appeal for Britain’s overseas possessions. From 1833 onward, the Council’s Judicial Committee heard appeals from all corners of Britain’s far-flung empire. The committee consisted of judges (most of whom were British, but colonial judges also sat from time to time) who heard the case and then made a formal recommendation to the Sovereign.

As Britain’s imperial possessions gained autonomy, most of them eventually stopped allowing Privy Council appeals. However, a small number of countries still retain the practice (including the republics of Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, and Mauritius!). New Zealand was one of them until the Supreme Court Act 2003 set up a local Supreme Court that took over the Privy Council’s appellate jurisdiction. However, the Supreme Court Act only applies to cases decided after December 31, 2003. Earlier decisions can still be appealed to the Privy Council, and it still hears a trickle of appeals from New Zealand.

The Chief Justice of New Zealand, Dame Sian Elias, will travel to the United Kingdom in order to sit on the five-member panel that will decide Pora’s case. In the past, the Chief Justice and other senior judges were customarily appointed to the Privy Council so they could sit on appeals from New Zealand, but the New Zealand Government discontinued the practice after the establishment of the Supreme Court (though current Privy Counsellors like Dame Sian retain their status). The other members of the panel will be Justices from the UK’s Supreme Court.

Pora v. The Queen will be heard from November 4-5, and a final judgment will be handed down at a later date.

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