Story: Te Kōti Whenua – Māori Land Court

Page 5. From Native to Māori Land Court, 1920–1980

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A 1920 survey showed that only about 19 acres (7.6 hectares) of Māori land remained for each of the 49,000 North Island Māori. From this period the government showed less interest in buying remaining Māori land, and more concern that impoverished Māori should not be a burden on the state. The Native Land Court moved away from its role as a ‘land-taking court’, and instead made greater efforts to help Māori develop their remaining lands. A Native Trustee was established to loan money to individual Māori for this purpose. Under the influence of Sir Apirana Ngata, the Native Trustee funded a series of large land-development schemes in rural areas.

Change of name

The Native Land Court became the Māori Land Court under the Maori Purposes Act 1947, which required that the term ‘Māori’ should replace ‘native’ in any official context. In 1952 the Māori Trustee assumed the functions of the Māori Land Boards.

Maori Affairs Act 1953

The Maori Affairs Act 1953 defined three types of Māori land – customary, freehold and reserve land. Most controversially, it gave the Māori Land Court the power to vest Māori freehold land valued at less than £25 in the Māori Trustee. The act also tried to improve the use and development of Māori land by allowing some flexibility in land management, such as through trusts. It remained the governing legislation for Māori land for 40 years.

Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967

A committee of inquiry chaired by former Chief Māori Land Court Judge Ivor Pritchard reviewed the power and jurisdiction of the court in 1967. Many of its recommendations were incorporated in the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967. Māori opposition to the compulsory acquisition of ‘uneconomic interests’ (land blocks worth less than $50) and provision to convert Māori land with fewer than five owners to general land led to the act’s replacement by the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974.

1978 McCarthy Commission

In 1978 another commission of inquiry, chaired by Sir Thaddeus McCarthy, inquired into the structure and operation of the Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court. Its 1980 report recommended that both courts should operate without major changes until Māori lands were adequately recorded in District Land Registries. The courts’ judicial functions should then be taken over by general courts and their land administration functions by the Department of Māori Affairs and bodies such as the Māori Land Board and Māori Land Advisory Committees. The McCarthy Commission noted the complexity of the Maori Affairs Act 1953 and advised that a complete revision of the law governing Māori affairs was necessary.

Te Ture Whenua Maori 1993

From the 1970s Māori issues, including Māori land legislation, became much more prominent in New Zealand’s political life. A shift in political attitudes to focus on preventing further sales of Māori land led to the revision of Māori land law proposed by the 1978 McCarthy Commission. The resulting legislation, Te Ture Whenua Maori (Maori Land Act) 1993, was the first piece of Māori land legislation to include a reference to the Treaty of Waitangi. Its preamble acknowledged the special relationship between the Māori people and the Crown established by the treaty, affirmed that it is desirable to recognise that land is a taonga tuku iho (treasure handed down) of special significance to Māori people, and promoted retention, occupation, development, and use of land for the benefit of its owners, their whānau and their hapū.

How to cite this page:

Mere Whaanga, 'Te Kōti Whenua – Māori Land Court - From Native to Māori Land Court, 1920–1980', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2022)

Story by Mere Whaanga, published 20 Jun 2012