Attending court hearings
Hearings of the Native Land Court were notoriously complex, lengthy and expensive. The court could only investigate blocks after they had been surveyed, and the survey costs were met by the Māori owners. Often 20% or more of the value of a block was consumed by its survey costs. The claimants then had to attend court sittings where they were prey to ‘a predatory horde of storekeepers, grog-sellers, surveyors, lawyers, land-agents and money-lenders’.1 Court sittings sometimes lasted for months, resulting in additional court costs and legal fees, as well as travel and accommodation costs for the landowners and competing claimants. At a sitting at Cambridge in the Waikato in 1882, ‘[t]he expenses were so great that the value of the land was absorbed in the outlay incurred attending the sittings of the Court.’2
Māori grew deeply alarmed at the actions of the court and between 1880 and 1890 they submitted a huge number of petitions on this subject to the House of Representatives.
On the booze
Sittings of the Native Land Court often resulted in drunkenness and other social problems. A Rotorua minister told a government commission in 1898, ‘Whenever the Natives had their land purchased … it was a scene of continual orgies until the money was spent. They would go up to the hotels and buy liquor in quantities, drinking to excess, which led to frequent accidents, some of which were fatal.’3 During court sittings in the King Country, ‘drunken Maori women and girls are a common sight there; and the results generally … are most deplorable.’4
One reason for the many long and expensive Native Land Court hearings was the complexity of Māori land law. Successive governments passed and amended a huge number of laws dealing with Māori land and the Native Land Court – eight in 1888 alone, and nine in 1889. In total, between 1865 and 1909 about 560 acts dealing with Māori land were passed.
1891 Rees–Carroll Commission
The law became so complex, and dealings in land so confused and tainted by claims of dishonesty, that in 1891 the government set up a commission to enquire into ‘Native land law, the alienation of interests in Native land, and the Native Land Courts’.5 The commission was also asked to establish principles for the administration of Māori land that would promote settlement. It became known as the Rees–Carroll Commission after its commissioners, lawyer and politician William Lee Rees and Māori politician James Carroll.
The main remedies recommended by the commission were:
- a Native Land Titles Court to enquire into incomplete Māori land transactions, and arbitrate and validate those that were fair and proper. This court could issue titles, except in cases where fraud or illegality was alleged. A separate Validation Court to investigate and determine disputed titles was set up and operated until 1909.
- remodelling the Native Land Court to consist of a chief judge, five district judges and five district commissioners. Reports containing tribal and hapū boundaries and lists of owners for each block would be prepared before the block was considered by the court.
Few of the commission’s other recommendations were implemented, mainly because they were inconsistent with government policy to open up Māori land for European settlement.
Native Land Court Act 1894
The Native Land Court Act 1894 was one of several laws making it easier to buy Māori land. It set up a specialist appeals court and restored the Crown’s right of pre-emption, a right which lasted until 1909. However, the Crown already purchased most large blocks of Māori land, and in other cases the pre-emption clause was routinely waived.