Story: Te tango whenua – Māori land alienation
Page 6 – The Native Land Court in practice
The operation of the Native Lands Acts and the Native Land Court caused numerous problems, particularly in Hawke’s Bay.
Ten owners rule
One problem was the ‘10 owners rule’ of the 1865 act, which limited the number of owners on a certificate of title to 10. The 10 may have been intended as representatives who held the land as trustees for the other owners, but in practice, once they received Crown grants they became legal owners.
In Hawke’s Bay, many chiefs exchanged their interests in lands for goods such as building materials, fencing wire, cigars, brandy and suits. Some became entangled in debt. In 1867 G. S. Cooper, a government official, reported that Hawke’s Bay rangatira (chiefs) were ‘allowed, and are indeed sometimes tempted’ to take credit ‘to an extent almost incredible’, and then ‘seeing no other means of raising the money, they have begun to sell their lands in every direction’. 1
A land commission
As a result of pressure from both Māori and concerned Pākehā, a commission of enquiry into Hawke’s Bay lands was established by Native Minister Donald McLean in 1873. The commission had two Māori and two Pākehā members and was chaired by Supreme Court Judge C. W. Richmond. He wrote the main report, rejecting Māori claims of fraudulent dealings by Pākehā settlers in Hawke’s Bay, but strongly criticising the actions of the Native Land Court.
Native Lands Act 1873
In 1873 McLean oversaw the enactment of a new Native Lands Act, with a number of changes. Most importantly it abolished the ‘10 owner rule’ and replaced it with a new system of a memorial of title, whereby all the owners of a block were entered into the court records. Chief Judge Fenton thought that the 1873 Act was intended ‘to do celestial justice, which I always believe to be impossible in this wicked world’. 2
However, the new law created a new problem. A block with many owners could become difficult to administer, especially as owners’ interests passed to their children and grandchildren over the years. This problem has become worse over time and today some blocks of Māori freehold land have many thousands of owners.
The Native Land Court continued investigating titles on a large scale until about 1900. By then it was running out of land to investigate – apart from some regions, such as the Urewera district, which had been set aside under special legislation.