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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The practice of adoption has been recognised in most communities, but its objects have differed widely. It was common in Maori society but took place only between members of related groups and to keep alive family connections, principally for purposes of war and inheritance. In New Zealand and in most other countries today, the main objects of adoption are to give family life to a child without parents or whose parents cannot or will not care for it, and to give a child to a couple without children or with fewer children than they want and can care for. Adoption is also a means of legitimating a child whose parents have not married.

Adoption is so widespread a custom that informal adoptions doubtless occurred among the earlier European settlers in New Zealand. For many years, however, the law paid exaggerated deference to abstract parental rights and denied all legal effect to adoptions except where Maori custom was applicable. The first Adoption Act was passed in 1881. Based on Massachusetts legislation of 1851, this Act was the first legal recognition given to adoption in a common law British country. It was copied in some Australian colonies, and the success of adoption in New Zealand influenced its eventual introduction in England in 1926. Modified and extended from time to time, the adoption legislation was rewritten in 1955.

It took some time for adoption to become popular among Europeans. There were, for example, only 75 legal adoptions between 1897 and 1907. Adoptions increased after 1914, reached 400 a year in the late twenties, and have exceeded 1,000 a year since 1945. In 1963 adoptions totalled 2,843, three times as many proportionately as in the United Kingdom.

Adoption was effected by an order of a Judge of the Maori Land Court where the adoptive parent was a Maori, and of a Magistrate in all other cases. Since 1963 all adoption orders are made by Magistrates.

Anyone under 21 may be adopted, but most adoptions are of very young children. Sometimes a child is adopted by a married couple, one of whom is the natural parent; thus a man may adopt his wife's child of a former marriage. Children are also adopted by relatives, friends of the family, or foster parents. The typical case, however, is the adoption by a married couple of the illegitimate child of a stranger. A couple wanting to adopt a child will usually make arrangements with a child welfare officer, or with a private organisation or maternity home, or with a private person such as a doctor. In any case a child welfare officer must approve if the child is under 15, except in the rare instance where the Court makes an interim adoption order immediately. Otherwise the adopting parents must apply for an interim order within a month of receiving the child, after which there is usually a trial period of six months. This interim order procedure, introduced in 1955, is a valuable safeguard against unsuitable adoptions.

For many years the legal effects of adoption were limited. The general acceptance of adoption, however, prompted radical changes in 1949. Their result was to absorb the child almost completely into his adoptive family and destroy for almost all legal purposes his relationship with his natural family. To all intents, an adopted child in New Zealand is as fully a member of his new family as if he were born to the adoptive parents in lawful wedlock.

by Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.

  • The Law of Adoption in New Zealand, Campbell, J. D. (1957).


Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.