Historians have been critical of the Native Land Court and the Native Lands Acts for a number of reasons. Firstly, land was easily sold to private purchasers, leading to very rapid Māori land loss and consequential impoverishment. Secondly, the court process was very expensive for Māori. Thirdly, the new system of individualised titles had serious impacts on Māori social organisation.
An expensive process
The Native Land Court process was expensive for Māori, both in terms of directly related costs (especially for surveys and court fees) and indirect costs like food and accommodation in the ‘court towns’ (Cambridge, Hastings, Marton and others) while the cases were heard. According to Wī Pere, a prominent chief from the Gisborne region:
The expense the Natives are put to is very great. I am aware of instances where the Natives have had to come a long distance to attend the sittings of the Native Land Court held in the neighbourhood of European settlements. In the case of the Native Land Court sitting at Cambridge, the Natives had to come from Taupo and Rotorua, and other distant places. The expenses were so great that the value of the land was absorbed in the outlay incurred in attending the sittings of the Court. A company that supplied the Natives with provisions charged for it, and the amount they had to pay equalled the value of the land. There was nothing left for the Natives. 1
This situation was an extreme example, but the process was certainly costly. The cost of surveys alone could easily come to 20–25% of the value of a block. At various times the law was changed to allow the court to proceed with a compiled or sketch plan instead of a full-scale survey plan, but this could create other problems (for example, mistakes about the size of the block).
It was a requirement that Māori with interest in land attend the hearings. The law required cases to be notified in advance, but Māori were nevertheless sometimes unaware that cases were being heard involving land blocks in which they had an interest. The court sometimes granted adjournments when certain owners could not attend a hearing, or because people needed time to prepare their cases or to return to their cultivations.
An agent of the state?
The Native Land Court has been accused of being merely an agency of the state and lacking proper judicial independence, but there were sometimes serious clashes between the court and government officials. At Tauranga, for instance, the government told the court that it should not hear and determine cases within the confiscated area. The court heard the cases anyway, and special legislation was eventually passed to keep it out of the Tauranga region. There were also clashes between the Native Land Court and the government in the Gisborne area. Chief Judge Francis Fenton certainly had a strong sense of the independence of his court.