Māori land: overview

The Māori Land Court (Te Kōti Whenua Māori) and the Māori Appellate Court (Te Kōti Pīra Māori) have jurisdiction to deal with kaupapa Māori matters in Aotearoa New Zealand, including the status, ownership, management and use of Māori land. They also have jurisdiction over Māori fisheries claims. This chapter is a helpful starting point for anyone dealing with kaupapa Māori legal issues.

Although it’s subject to many of the same laws as other land in Aotearoa, Māori land is also different in some key ways. Under Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 (the Māori Land Act), there are significant restrictions on transferring ownership of the land, whether on the death of an owner or through the selling or gifting of the land. The Act favours ownership of Māori land being retained among the owners’ whānau, hapū and descendants.

The Māori Land Court enforces those restrictions. Most dealings with Māori land are scrutinised by the court and require a court order to be legally effective – for example, a “vesting order” in the case of the sale of land.

Because most Māori land has multiple owners, Te Ture Whenua Māori Act also provides various management structures and other methods that the owners can use to make decisions about the land more effectively – for example, by forming themselves into an incorporation or by putting the land under the control of trustees.

This chapter includes information about:

  • the different status categories for Māori land, and how the status of Māori land can be changed (see “Status of Māori land” in this chapter)
  • how the Māori Land Court works, including how to apply for an order from the court and how you can challenge the court’s decisions (see “The Māori Land Court”)
  • how ownership of Māori land can be transferred, either on the death of the owner or through sale or gifting of the land, and the restrictions that apply in these cases (see, in this chapter, “Succession: Transfer of ownership when an owner dies” and “Alienation: Selling, gifting and other land transactions”)
  • the different management structures that multiple owners of Māori land can use to make decisions about their land and its use (including Māori land trusts, Māori incorporations, and Māori reservations) and how to set up those structures (see in this chapter “Methods of managing Māori land: Trusts, incorporations, and reservations”)
  • building on and occupying Māori land, including information about orders available from the Māori Land Court, local council requirements, and a special home finance scheme, the kāinga whenua loan scheme (see in this chapter “Building on and occupying Māori land”)
  • the partitioning (subdividing) of Māori land if an owner wants to separate out their shares in the land from the other owners, and other ways in which the court can improve the title to the land, such as by combining separate landholdings (see in this chapter “Partitions (subdivisions) and other title improvements”)
  • getting legal recognition of customary rights in te takutai moana (the marine and coastal area, or “foreshore and seabed”) (see in this chapter “Takutai moana: Customary rights in the marine and coastal area”).

    Note: A new Te Ture Whenua Māori Bill was before Parliament in May 2017 when we published this Manual. According to Te Puni Kōkiri, the new law will give Māori landowners greater freedom to use and develop their land. It will also set up a new Māori Land Service, which will take over some of the functions of the Māori Land Court, like dealing with applications when landowners have decided for themselves about the use of their land or what governance structure they want. The Māori Land Court will still deal with central issues like the status of Māori land. The new laws will come into force in October 2018 or later.

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