Doing legal business in New Zealand

From May 2023, UK lawyers can work in New Zealand more easily under the free trade agreement. Find out how to practise in New Zealand or set up a law firm.

New Zealand is a highly developed free-market economy. It is the 52nd-largest national economy in the world by gross domestic product (GDP) and the 62nd-largest in the world when measured by purchasing power parity.

New Zealand has a large GDP for its population of five million, and sources of revenue are spread throughout the large island nation.

The country has one of the most globalised economies and depends greatly on international trade, mainly with Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States.

New Zealand is also one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

New Zealand's 1983 Closer Economic Relations agreement with Australia means that the two economies are closely aligned.

This guide covers:

The legal system and courts

New Zealand’s government is based on the British system and is built on the separation of powers. The institutions of government are divided into three branches:

  • parliament
  • executive
  • judiciary

Laws are written by the executive and passed through parliament. New Zealand’s courts interpret these laws and ensure that people, groups and institutions in New Zealand comply with them.

The legal system is modelled on the common law of England and Wales. New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, in which King Charles III is the sovereign and head of state.

The two main streams of New Zealand law are criminal law and civil law. Other streams of law include family law, environmental law and commercial law.

The Ministry of Justice is an executive department of the New Zealand Government, responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice within New Zealand. It delivers a variety of services including the administration of court services and the collection of fines.

In order of hierarchy, New Zealand’s courts include:

  • the Supreme Court of New Zealand
  • the Court of Appeal
  • the High Court
  • the Courts Martial Appeal Authority
  • the District Court
  • various specialist courts

The legal profession

Most lawyers in New Zealand practise as both solicitors and barristers. This allows them to conduct all the legal activities in a court case including advising clients and representing them in court.

However, 14% of lawyers in New Zealand practise as barristers alone.

There are more than 16,600 lawyers in New Zealand with practising certificates from the New Zealand Law Society.

As of February 2023, 13,530 New Zealand-based and 803 overseas-based lawyers hold New Zealand practising certificates. Of these, 51% are women.

Women comprise almost 60% of employees in law firms, but only 26% are directors or partners.

Among the 282 appointed King’s counsel, 255 are men, while 27 are women.

Currently only 29% of women make up the judiciary.

Regulation and representation

The New Zealand Law Society is the statutory regulator of the legal profession.

Lawyers qualified in New Zealand are regulated by the New Zealand Law Society when they provide legal services work, conveyancing services or services provided by undertaking the work of a real estate agent.

In New Zealand, anyone can provide legal services, but only lawyers can carry out work in the reserved areas of law.

All lawyers must comply with the fundamental obligations as set out in section 4 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, including to:

  • uphold the rule of law
  • facilitate the administration of justice in New Zealand
  • protect the interests of their clients (subject to their overriding duties as officers of the High Court and under legislation)

Practising in New Zealand

Only those that hold a New Zealand practising certificate issued by the New Zealand Law Society are classified as ‘lawyers’ for the purposes of the New Zealand regulatory regime.

Under section 25 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 (LCA), foreign lawyers can:

  • do any work or oversee business transactions in New Zealand that concerns the law of another country or international law
  • provide legal services (including appearances) in New Zealand in relation to any proceedings before a court or other body, if it’s essential, for the purposes of the proceedings, that the foreign lawyer has knowledge of the law of another country or international law
  • use home jurisdiction description, subject to certain constraints, such as number of years practiced under home title, previous experience, and possessing a New Zealand lawyer’s practicing certificate

The LCA explicitly allows foreign lawyers to practise in New Zealand on a temporary fly-in, fly-out basis.

Find out more on the New Zealand Law Society’s website

Foreign lawyers without a New Zealand practising certificate can provide legal services in New Zealand in ‘unreserved’ areas of work, such as:

  • general contractual matters
  • general commercial matters
  • tax
  • health and safety
  • regulatory compliance

They may not carry not work in ‘reserved’ areas, which include:

  • carrying out proceedings before any New Zealand court or tribunal to which the other person is a party or is likely to become a party
  • appearing as an advocate for any other person before any New Zealand court or tribunal
  • representing another person involved in proceedings before any New Zealand court or tribunal
  • giving legal advice or carrying out any other action that must be carried out by a New Zealand lawyer under section 21F of the Property (Relationships) Act 1976 or any other enactment

In practice, overseas lawyers may provide a full range of legal services if they work under the supervision of a New Zealand law firm.

Alternatively, they may be employed ‘in-house’ by corporations and organisations to provide legal services outside the ‘reserved’ areas.

UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement

The UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed on 28 February 2022 and comes into force on 31 May 2023.

The FTA confirms the existing right of UK lawyers to practise foreign and international law, including arbitration, mediation, and conciliation in New Zealand, under existing qualifications and home title.

UK professionals such as lawyers will benefit from improved business travel arrangements that allow them to work in New Zealand more easily. This will help UK lawyers to supply services in New Zealand.

The deal also allows UK companies to:

  • establish a presence in New Zealand
  • bring UK-based talent with them through company transfers

Family members will also be able to join a company transferee in New Zealand for the duration of their visa.

The deal also establishes a bespoke legal services regulatory dialogue which will allow for engagement between the UK and New Zealand to address remaining barriers to practising law in each country.

Becoming a legal practitioner in New Zealand

To call yourself or practise as a New Zealand lawyer, you’ll need to have:

  1. a current practising certificate from the New Zealand Law Society
  2. been admitted to the roll of barristers and solicitors of the High Court of New Zealand
  3. a bachelor of laws degree (LLB) approved by the New Zealand Council of Legal Education (NZCLE) – overseas law graduates or those who have been admitted in another jurisdiction (except Australia) may need to complete further New Zealand university subjects and/or parts of the New Zealand Law and Practice Examination
  4. completed the Professional Legal Studies Course with either the Institute of Professional Legal Studies or College of Law (overseas trained lawyers may be exempt, once their qualifications and experience have been assessed by the NZCLE)
  5. a certificate of completion from the NZCLE
  6. a certificate of character from the New Zealand Law Society

A lawyer may practise as either:

  • a barrister and solicitor, or
  • a barrister sole

Only lawyers who hold practising certificates can carry out work in the reserved areas of work. These are set out in section 6 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.

Lawyers may:

  • be employed (by law firms or non-law firms)
  • be self-employed as a barrister or a sole practitioner, or
  • practice in partnership in a law firm or in an incorporated law firm

Multidisciplinary practices are not permitted.

Gaining a practising certificate in New Zealand

The practising certificate entitles lawyers to:

  • practise throughout New Zealand
  • describe yourself as 'a lawyer'

Applicants are eligible to hold a practising certificate in New Zealand if:

  • your name is on the roll of barristers and solicitors of the High Court of New Zealand
  • you have paid the required fees
  • you meet the eligibility criteria set out in section 4 of the LCA
  • you do not hold or have not applied to hold, a practising certificate as a conveyancing practitioner, immigration advisor or real estate agent

You’ll need to:

  • make a written statement undertaking to comply with the fundamental obligations of lawyers, as set out in section 4 of the LCA
  • disclose to the New Zealand Law Society any circumstances that would or might not make you suitable to holding a practising certificate
  • comply with any applicable orders of a Standards Committee, the Legal Complaints Review Officer, and the Disciplinary Tribunal
Renewing a practising certificate

The practising certificate must be renewed annually.

You’ll also need to make a declaration that nothing has occurred that might affect your ability to practise during the previous 12 months.

Foreign law firms

To practise on your own account, lawyers must seek set up approval from the New Zealand Law Society.

The 'stepping up' course must be completed by any lawyers intending to be:

  • partners in a law firm
  • directors of an incorporated law firm, or
  • sole practitioners

The course covers areas such as professional conduct and client care, managing clients’ funds, and marketing legal services.

Firms must then:

  • advise the New Zealand Law Society on administrative details
  • pay the inspectorate fee
  • pay all other relevant practising fees and levies

Find out more about starting a new law firm in New Zealand

Professional indemnity insurance

Professional indemnity (PI) insurance is not compulsory for lawyers in New Zealand, but firms must disclose their PI arrangements to their clients in writing.

If you are in sole practice, within three months of starting your firm you must give power of attorney to an agent (attorney) and an alternative to conduct your practice, or act as the board of your incorporated firm, should the need arise.

Sharing income

Lawyers in New Zealand cannot share the income from any business involving the provision of regulated services with any person other than:

  • a lawyer (someone holding a New Zealand practising certificate), or
  • an incorporated law firm

This includes with overseas lawyers.

See section 7 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006

Legal services market

The New Zealand economy is highly reliant on international trade. In 2019, New Zealand was ranked by the World Bank as the easiest country in the world to do business in.

Well-established domestic firms include Bell Gully, Chapman Tripp, Russell McVeagh, Buddle Findlay and Simpson Grierson, all of which maintain a strong presence in the market and provide full-service capabilities.

International firms such as Dentons Kensington Swan and DLA Piper New Zealand continue to have a strong footing in New Zealand.

Firms with niche expertise include litigation specialists LeeSalmonLong, insurance boutique Wotton + Kearney. Intellectual property firm AJ Park also has a well-established presence.

The number of commercial litigators leaving solicitor firms to join the bar is steadily increasing, and insolvency cases are on the rise, notably in the construction and property development sector.

Although still in its infancy, New Zealand has seen significant cases of climate change litigation, with governments remaining the most common defendant.

Requalifying in England and Wales

Lawyers from abroad and overseas students who wish to qualify in England and Wales can sit the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

The SQE provides a path to the solicitor title through the same exam taken by domestic candidates.

Read our guidance on the SQE for foreign lawyers

The SQE has replaced the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS).

If you have already started the QLTS and passed the multiple-choice test, see the SRA’s guidance.

SQE exemptions for New Zealand lawyers

Solicitors and barristers from New Zealand with at least two years' legal work experience gained as part of their qualification or post (or a combination of these) are eligible for exemption from the SQE2 assessment. This means they can requalify as English and Welsh solicitors by only sitting SQE1.

The SQE1 consists of two multiple-choice exams which test functioning legal knowledge.

Find out more about SQE exemptions


Overseas lawyers working in New Zealand

Women and the legal profession in New Zealand

Global Regulation and Trade in Legal Services Report 2014, International Bar Association

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