New Zealand's Chief Justice says the country's courts must continue to uphold the rule of law during the nationwide lockdown with cases affecting a person's liberty or safety still to be heard.

At 11.59pm tonight Aotearoa will enter alert level 4 with only essential services continuing to operate for at least the next four weeks to stop the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.

A state of emergency for all of New Zealand has also been declared today, providing authorities new powers, including powers of requisition, closing roads, and stopping people from doing certain activities.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the lockdown could save thousands of Kiwi lives from Covid-19. She told people not to fear the police and military patrolling our streets as they enforce the strict measures.

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New Zealanders are advised to stay at home unless visiting an essential service.

However, the wheels of justice will continue to turn - at least in part.

In a statement this afternoon, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann acknowledged the concern among the public, court staff and legal practitioners with any requirement to travel to court for hearings.

"I also understand that the restrictions imposed by the level 4 alert make it difficult for parties and legal practitioners to conduct court proceedings," she said.

"However, courts are an essential service. New Zealand courts must continue to uphold the rule of law and to ensure that fair trial rights, the right to natural justice and rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act are upheld."

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The Chief Justice said the heads of bench, the top judge at each judicial level, have decided only proceedings "affecting the liberty of the individual or their personal safety and wellbeing, or that are time-critical" should be heard while the country is at alert level 4.

New Zealand's top judge earlier outlined what hearings might meet that criteria.

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"To the maximum extent possible, and to avoid the need for people to attend court in person, the courts will use remote participation to hear these matters," Justice Winkelmann said. "Remote participation may involve AVL (audio-visual link) where that is possible, telephone or email."

However, the Chief Justice admitted during the four-week lockdown some in-person attendances may be required in the District Court, Family Court, High Court and Court of Appeal.

"Where court attendance is unavoidable, the safety of the public, court staff and members of the legal profession is paramount," she said.

"Measures have been taken to achieve physical distance and to improve courthouse hygiene. The Ministry of Justice has posted designated hygiene officers to each court to ensure that the increased hygiene standards are maintained."

All courts are also requiring court documents to be filed by email during the level 4 alert.

"Courts will not receive in-person filing of documents, though arrangements may need to be made to receive some without-notice applications in the Family Court," the Chief Justice said.

"Courts will continue to receive filing by post for those who cannot access facilities to file by email, but due to hygiene requirements, processing of documents received by post may be significantly delayed."

The courts will also waive the payment of filing fees for documents filed during the level 4 alert, which the judges can do under specific legislation.

"Our frontline court staff and members of the legal profession have continued to serve the interests of justice," the Chief Justice said. "Their constructive approach to the necessary changes we have implemented, and will continue to implement, keeps the courts operating and ensures that justice is administered."

The Chief Justice had already ordered a halt to any new jury trials for at least two months due to Covid-19.