There is no High Court in Whanganui

Whanganui Court
Not quite all there – the Whanganui Courthouse

In this post I split the hair of an angel dancing on the head of a pin to argue that there is no High Court in Whanganui.

There is a building.  From the picture above it seems the architects liked pebble dash.

Offices of the High Court are established in places either because they had in fact been established and later statutes continued them in a legal sense, or because they were established by statute.  A person might ask why there is no High Court in Mosgiel.  The reason, at least in modern times, is that an office of the High Court has not been established in Mosgiel.

Section 11 of the Senior Courts Act 2016 provides:


Give a notice in the Gazette, and you’ve got yourself a High Court, Mosgiel Registry.  Similarly, give a notice saying that the High Court in Wellington is abolished, and there is no longer a High Court in Wellington.  Naturally, it doesn’t change any physical structures.

For the time period that we are interested in, the establishment and abolition of High Court offices was governed by s 23A of the Judicature Act 1908, which is in largely similar terms to s 11 above.

There was a High Court in Wanganui.  The weak point in this argument is that I can’t find the documents establishing it in the first place.  It seems clear there wasn’t one originally.  R v Robinson Coupe from 1861 was a perjury trial in the Wellington Supreme Court that stemmed from false evidence in the Wanganui Magistrates Court.  The implication is that there was no Supreme Court at the time in Wanganui.

But it seems clear there was one.  By 1884 there was a Supreme Court hearing in Wanganui appearing in the New Zealand Law Reports – National Bank v National Mortgage and Agency Company (1885) 3 NZLR 257 (SC):

Wanganui HC
We’re off to Wanganui!

And since then there have been any number of decisions out of the Supreme Court and then the High Court at Wanganui.

Except Wanganui is not Wanganui any more.  It is Whanganui.  And it has been since 19 December 2015 when the Minister of Land Information accepted the recommendation of the New Zealand Geographic Board and gazetted the change.  This replaced an earlier change where the official name was both Wanganui and Whanganui.  The change is only one letter (in English, adding an H, in Māori changing the W to a Wh).  But the quality of the change is akin to a complete renaming.  The difference is one of degree only.  (A further technicality is that there is no city of Whanganui, the town takes its name from the district of Whanganui, which is what was changed in 2015.)

But, and I am slowly getting to the point, the High Court office was never abolished in Wanganui and re-established in Whanganui in 2015 when the name officially changed.  And no one has done it since.  That means the earlier High Court office at Wanganui continues to exist (in a legal sense).  It doesn’t matter that they are the same physical buildings.  If Auckland was renamed Obiterville, we would still have to refer to the High Court at Auckland until an Obiterville office was established.  The difference between Wanganui and Whanganui is small but it exists.

Of course, the registry currently purports to be the Whanganui registry:

Whanganui Registry


But the judicial branch has to do that because of s 32 of the New Zealand Geographic Board (Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa) Act 2008 requires all government agencies to use the official name for a place:

Section 32.JPG

And if you track back through the definitions of this Act, which links to the definitions in the Public Records Act 2005, that ends up applying to the judicial branch and court judgments.

So the court is required to refer to the Whanganui registry, even though that has not been established.  The fact that the name appears on judgments is no indication that the office of the Court exists.

The result is that, if you squint, and take many leaps of faith, in a kinda-sort-of way there is no High Court in Whanganui, but there remains a High Court office in Wanganui.  Or at least that’s what I’m claiming.


Fact-checking myself, or, the many reasons why this argument is a bit shit

It doesn’t really account for any possible semantic difference between registries and offices.  The High Court Rules 2016 refer to multiple registries, but do not use the term “office”.  Likewise the Senior Courts Act 2016 refers to offices but not registries.  And while the Ministry of Justice website treats as synonymous registry with office, it is possible that there is only one unified “office” of the High Court nationwide, with multiple registries.

It presupposes that a High Court at Wanganui was established in a legal sense (likely in the 19th century).  Which to be fair I think is likely, but without an exhaustive search through hard copy Gazette records is going to be hard to establish.

The whole “H” in Whanganui thing makes it all seems a bit white supremacist-adjacent when it’s only meant to be legal pedantry.



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