New Zealand Law Society - Tribunals Aotearoa: from the desk of Janet Robertshawe, head of the Disputes Tribunal

Tribunals Aotearoa: from the desk of Janet Robertshawe, head of the Disputes Tribunal

Tribunals Aotearoa: from the desk of Janet Robertshawe, head of the Disputes Tribunal
Janet Robertshawe catching up with friends at the local Waitangirua market

Head of the Disputes Tribunal, Janet Robertshawe offers a valuable insight into the development of Tribunals Aotearoa as well as sharing her own career pathway and the many great opportunities the Tribunal sphere offers those who may be seeking a change of direction.

Janet Robertshawe, Principal Disputes Referee and Deputy Chair of Tribunals Aotearoa, recently sat down with LawTalk to discuss the growing role of the Disputes Tribunal, the recent creation of Tribunals Aotearoa and the opportunity that tribunals present for enhancing access to civil justice.

The growth of the Disputes Tribunal

Since 1989, the Disputes Tribunal has been working at the front door of the courts, dealing with the many small claims that arise when everyday dealings do not work out as planned. The Tribunal was designed by important thinkers such as Sir Geoffrey Palmer and disputes resolution expert Jane Chart, Janet Robertshawe said.

“The Disputes Tribunal pilot began for claims of just $1,000.00. The quick and accessible process, the exclusion of legal representation and the mixed model of settlement and adjudication were unique factors in establishing a pragmatic and efficient process that avoided the cost of a lawyer and the time involved in court proceedings.”

The success of the model has seen the jurisdiction expand over 35 years to $30,000, with a Rules Committee recommendation to go further – up to $70,000 as of right, or $100,000 by consent. There are approximately 65 Referees throughout the country. The Tribunal handles 12,500 claims a year, about 50% of which are resolved by agreement either before or at a hearing. In 2023, the Tribunal received claims to the value of $106,000,000.00.

The establishment of Tribunals Aotearoa

The Disputes Tribunal is one of an estimated 100 tribunals and authorities operating in New Zealand, managed by a number of different ministries and agencies. They share many issues of common concern, and between them have a considerable pool of knowledge and experience. Last year, Tribunals Aotearoa was established by a collaboration of 36 of the main civil, administrative and professional/licensing bodies, to consider the issues and to benefit from information sharing.

Janet Robertshawe in her woolshed in Porirua

The development of Tribunals Aotearoa comes at a time of significant focus on improving access to civil justice in New Zealand led by the Wayfinding for Civil Justice advisory group chaired by Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin from the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo. This work is expected to result in the establishment of a National Civil Justice Observatory later this year.

Janet sees the collaboration by tribunals as an important part of the access to justice work. “Over the last 40 years, tribunals have developed on an ad hoc basis to respond to needs as they have arisen. This leaves the public having to navigate themselves through to the right service, each of which is delivered in a different way. Although these differences reflect the specialist needs of each area, there is a need to ensure we are connecting to the legal needs within the community, to develop a joint work programme, share best practice, and establish a strong joint venture with the courts. We are very grateful to the Chief Justice for her support of this development. An example of the value of the collaboration with the judiciary was the recently issued AI guidelines for courts and tribunals which now apply across almost all adjudication.”

Tribunals Aotearoa is chaired by Trish McConnell, who brings 30 years of tribunal involvement and leadership to the role.

The Disputes Tribunal is the largest tribunal by membership. More importantly, it forms a natural link point between courts and tribunals as it sits in both worlds as a tribunal that is a division of the District Court. As Principal Disputes Referee, Janet has recently joined the Chief Justice’s Heads of Bench Committee to help promote that link.

Janet Robertshawe’s career pathway

Janet has been involved in tribunals since 2008. After time spent in the Family Court, she could see the way forward was best achieved through consensus, rather than combat.

After studying law and economics at Otago, Janet began work at the Wellington office of Bell Gully in the banking and finance team. “I thought that was where success would lie. But I found the work did not align with who I was. It was a tough spot to leave after a few years and feel like I had failed.” But the universe soon delivered a new pathway. Life took Janet east of Dannevirke to a large sheep and beef station on the Manawatū River. Janet recalls, “The isolation of life on the station, being close to nature, and the rural way of life highlighted the core values of the community around me; of egalitarianism, inventiveness, positivity, humility, courage and the importance of good banter, all informed by the undeniable kinship of all things. I was able to reflect on who I was and reset what I wanted to achieve. I had a love of the law, and I realised I could use it in a different way.”

The opportunity to do so came after the devastating Manawatū floods of 2004. This event became a turning point in a difficult decision to leave the land, and an opportunity once again for a new chapter to emerge. This time, when Janet re-entered the legal profession, she knew exactly where she was headed. After resettling in Invercargill and working in the Family Court and general practice, Janet was to become the adjudicator in both the Tenancy and Disputes Tribunal in Southland for six years. “I loved the disputes work from the very first day. People would come in, on the ferry from Stewart Island, on the road from Monowai, or just from local city life, neighbours, businesses, farmers, contractors, and they could experience a low-cost process that is so simple and accessible but filled with potential to bring out the best of a bad situation.”

The isolation of life on the station, being close to nature, and the rural way of life highlighted the core values of the community around me; of egalitarianism, inventiveness, positivity, humility, courage and the importance of good banter, all informed by the undeniable kinship of all things

Now living back on a farm in Porirua, Janet was appointed Principal Disputes Referee in 2021. She could see there was a need to ground the Tribunal in its core purpose, and not lose sight of its informality, flexibility and ability to connect as it grew. “For the next stage of the Tribunal’s development, we needed to keep delivering a professional service founded in due process, but also one founded on accessibility, inclusiveness and an attitude of respect and understanding. There is a river that flows beneath every conversation. We have learnt over the life of the Tribunal that the way the interaction is managed, and the tools used to evaluate what has happened, can really impact on how the parties treat each other, and the part of themselves they draw on in their response to the conflict. With the recent transfer of the Tribunal into the Remuneration Authority, we have been able to strengthen the team and offer a legitimate career path in the law from various avenues of dispute resolution, prosecution, academia and civil litigation into the very real opportunity that the Disputes Tribunal presents to enhance community wellbeing.”

The way ahead

This year, an extensive Legal Needs Survey is being conducted with the support of MOJ and MBIE, a second strand of the access to justice work that sits alongside the Wayfinding for Civil Justice work.

“Tribunals sit very close to the conversation that takes place between the legal system and the community, and with over 250 judicial officers dealing with more than 100,000 people a year, the availability and quality of these interactions are essential to social cohesion, wellbeing and a fair and just society. We are able to use our independence and flexibility to innovate and adapt. We need to engage with the excellent data currently being produced on legal need and bridge the challenges that people face to find resolution.”

By way of example, Janet points to the evidence from Dr Toy-Cronin’s work in 2021 with the Citizens Advice Bureau on expressed legal needs, which aligns with her sense that there are difficulties for people navigating the front end of Tribunal systems. Looking at changes already in train, Janet says that Tribunals now generally provide more remote hearings, improving accessibility and reducing time and cost for participants. Also, in the Disputes Tribunal, work is being done to enable more hearings to take place in te reo Māori, and in accordance with tikanga, whenever this would best suit the resolution process for those involved. These are all natural progressions in improving access to justice and the quality of that justice.

In sending a message to those in the law who may be looking for a change of direction, Janet says, “There are many great opportunities now for those wanting to work in the Tribunal sphere, to play their part in working closely with people to solve their differences and to do so in a way that feels like it is the heart centre of justice. There is so much that can be achieved by working directly with people through simple processes, and to use our knowledge as lawyers to really make a difference.”

Tribunals Aotearoa

There are many Tribunals in New Zealand providing frontline justice to over 100,000 people each year. Tribunals are designed to provide access to dispute resolution, the enforcement of rights and the licensing and regulation of professionals. The Disputes Tribunal is a division of the District Court. However, all other Tribunals are outside the Court system and are specialist bodies created by legislation covering defined topic areas.

Tribunals deal with a wide range of topics, including contract and consumer issues, neighbour disputes, claims about property damage, residential tenancies, human rights, employment disputes, earthquake insurance claims, immigration and refugee appeals, benefit and legal aid appeals and complaints and regulation of professionals, such as lawyers, health practitioners, teachers, builders, real estate agents, engineers, plumbers, electrical workers, engineers and security guards.

Tribunals Aotearoa has been established to enable Tribunals to work together to enhance the delivery of our services to the public. It works closely with its Australian counterparts and has been established as the New Zealand chapter of the Council of Australasian Tribunals (COAT).

Tribunals Aotearoa incorporates 36 Tribunals, and more than 300 judicial officers hearing claims valued in excess of $250,000,000 annually.

There are three main types of Tribunals. A list of the types of Tribunals within Tribunals Aotearoa is provided below.

Civil: Disputes between parties

Administrative: Appealing Government decisions

Professional: Complaints and licensing of professionals

Tribunals are able to establish facts, apply the law and make reasoned, binding decisions. They are usually set up to specialise in one subject area and are designed to be faster, more informal, and cheaper than the Courts. Tribunals Aotearoa is committed to establishing community connection and ensuring that any member of the public can get access to Tribunals, regardless of their means, ethnicity and language. Tribunals are an important way to provide access to justice and to shape and respond to the many perspectives that define who we are as a people.


Areas covered

Disputes Tribunal

Consumer, contract, commercial, neighbour and property damage up to $30,000.00

Tenancy Tribunal

Residential tenancy issues up to $100,000.00

Unit Title disputes up to $50,000.00

Human Rights Review Tribunal

Claims regarding human rights, privacy matters and health and disability consumer rights, compensation may be sought of up to $350,000.00

Employment Relations Authority

Disputes between employers and employees

Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal

Disputes between consumers and car dealers up to $100,000.00 or unlimited value by consent

Canterbury Earthquakes Insurance Tribunal

Insurance disputes arising from Canterbury Earthquakes

Weathertight Homes Tribunal

Disputes regarding leaky homes

Copyright Tribunal

Disputes regarding copyright licensing schemes and file sharing infringements

Sports Disputes Tribunal

Disputes regarding anti-doping violations selection and other sports issues


Administrative Review

Areas covered

Immigration and Protection Tribunal

Appeals against decisions of Immigration NZ relating to residence class visa applications, deportation, and refugee and protected person status

Social Security Appeal Authority

Appeals against decisions made by Ministry of Social Development

Student Allowance Appeal Authority

Appeals from students on decisions made by the Ministry of Social Development

Taxation Review Authority

Appeals regarding tax assessments or decisions made by the IRD

Customs Appeals Authority

Appeals against decisions made by the NZ Customs Service

Legal Aid Tribunal

Review Authority (Legal Aid)

Review of decisions regarding the grant of legal aid

Review of Legal Aid provider approvals

Veterans' Entitlement Appeal Board

Veterans’ entitlement appeals

Land Valuation Tribunal

Objections to ratings valuations and land taken under Public Works Act

Trans-Tasman Occupations Tribunals

Review of registration authority decisions under the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Act


Professional Regulatory

Areas covered

Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal

Disciplinary hearings against lawyers and conveyancers

Legal Complaints Review Officer

Review of decisions made by Standards Committees of the NZ Law Society and NZ Society of Conveyancers

Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal

Complaints about health practitioners

Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal

Complaints about teachers

Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Tribunal

Licensing and disciplinary matters for real estate agents

Immigration Advisers Complaints and Disciplinary Tribunal

Complaints against licensed immigration advisers

Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority

Liquor licensing issues and appeals arising from district licensing committees and local alcohol policies

Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority

Licensing applications and objections for security personnel

Licensing Authority for Second Hand Dealers and Pawnbrokers

Licensing applications and objections for second hand dealers and pawnbrokers

Cadastral Surveyors Licensing Board

Licensing, competency standards and disciplinary matters for surveyors

Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board

Registration and regulation of plumbers, gas fitters, drainlayers

Building Practitioners Board

Administers the Licensed Building Practitioners Scheme

Engineering Associates Registration Board

Standards and registration for engineers and associated professionals

Electrical Workers Registration Board

Standards, registration, and disciplinary matters for electrical workers

Electricity Rulings Panel

Electricity industry code disputes

Veterinary Council of NZ Judicial Committee

Disciplinary matters for vets

Social Workers Complaints and Disciplinary Tribunal

Disciplinary matters for social workers