The Court of Appeal recently overturned decisions of both the Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court which held that the Māori Land Court had jurisdiction to decide matters in relation to trustees of an iwi post-settlement governance entity (PSGE) Trust.   

The purpose of the Trust was to advance the mana motuhake (self-determination, independence) of the iwi, and to hold assets, including some blocks of land, on behalf of current and future members of the iwi.

Importantly, the beneficiaries of the Trust were discretionary beneficiaries, and the Trust was to continue indefinitely. As part of the iwi settlement package several blocks of land were vested in the Trustees. The majority of the Trust Fund was made up by assets other than this land. 

Under Te Ture Whenua Māori Act, the Māori Land Court has jurisdiction over trusts which are “constituted in respect of General land owned by Māori.”

The Māori Land Court held that this Trust did fall within its jurisdiction as it was a Trust which held General land for Māori beneficiaries. The Trustees appealed this decision to the Māori Appellate court, but the Māori Appellate Court upheld the decision, holding that a PSGE is constituted to receive and manage assets, which includes land. Therefore, a purpose of a PSGE is to hold land so it can be said to be constituted in respect of General land owned by Māori. 

The Trustees appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal arguing that the land was not owned by Māori, and the Trust was not constituted in respect of this land. 

On the issue of ownership, the Court of Appeal noted that the assets held by the Trust were for the benefit of an open class of discretionary beneficiaries. Under Trust law, discretionary beneficiaries have an interest in the Trust assets, but this interest is not equivalent to beneficial ownership.

The Court of Appeal found that the Act should be interpreted in line with its ordinary meaning. As such the term “owned” should mean rights that constitute ownership. The interest of the discretionary beneficiaries was insufficient to be considered ownership over the General Land held by the Trust.

On the issue of whether the Trust was constituted in respect of the land, the Court of Appeal held that holding the land was not a material purpose for which the Trust was established. While the Court accepted that holding and administering assets was one of the Trust’s purposes, this was not sufficiently linked to one or particular blocks of land. 

Having determined that the Trust did not hold General land owned by Māori and was not constituted in respect of General Land owned by Māori, the Court held that the Māori Land Court did not have jurisdiction over the PSGE Trust.


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