What is the Maori Land Court?

Marlene de Wilde

The Maori Land Court is a court in New Zealand that deals with the legalities of native Maori land. Originally established as the Native Land Court in 1865, the court hears cases on land successions, sales, administration and how the land can be better used and occupied by the Maori people. The court recognizes the special relationship that the native people have had with the land, so its decisions are based on property law as well as Maori tradition.

The Maori Land Court is a court in New Zealand that deals with the legalities of native Maori land.
The Maori Land Court is a court in New Zealand that deals with the legalities of native Maori land.

The Maori Land Court covers such areas as the rules applying to Maori incorporations and how they manage blocks of land that can by owned by hundreds. Succession is also difficult in cases like this, and these often come before the court. The setting up of Maori reservations, trustees’ duties and the transference of land shares are subjects that the court deals with, as is title improvement.

Presiding over court proceedings in the Maori Land Court are a Chief Judge and a Deputy Chief Judge, but there are also judges in districts throughout New Zealand. Decisions made by the court are reviewed by the Maori Appellate Court. A statute of the New Zealand Parliament outlining how Maori land should be governed is covered by the Maori Land Act, or Te Ture Whenua Maori Act, of 1993.

This legislation was the first in 40 years to affect Maori Land. In it, the role of the Maori Land Court was reinforced and its reach extended. A new provision was that where a dispute about Maori rights or customs arose, the Chief Judge was required to call in expert evidence or appoint at least two lay members.

The Native Land Court was established as a result of the Native Lands Acts in 1862 and 1865. The history of the court has been a checkered one. From its foundation in 1865, it has been the foremost symbol of English law for the Maori people. Many people consider it to have been mostly an oppressive instrument of the British legal system that deprived Maori of their land under the guise of protecting them from exploitation.

Maori land rights were first addressed by the British with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. About 500 Maori chiefs signed the treaty, which established a British governor in New Zealand and gave the Maori the same rights as the British. It has since become controversial because of the differences between the English and Maori interpretations of the document. Another difficulty is the difference in the way words such as "governance," "ownership" and "property" are understood by the two cultures.

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