Some Māori land trusts managing Māori land have been in existence for many decades. Over time, new trustees may be appointed, and information can be lost as a result. Effective written record keeping and remaining informed as a trustee is crucial to avoiding costly mistakes that can arise.

In a recent case before the Māori Land Court, a Māori trust entered into a grazing agreement with their neighbour, paying the neighbour’s land rates in return. This arrangement carried on for several years after the neighbour passed away. As no formal records were kept, the trust wrongly assumed it owned the land and built a rental property upon it, leasing it to tenants. When the neighbour’s descendant became aware of the occupation, proceedings were initiated against the trust.

The Māori Land Court ordered that the house be removed and damages of $1700 were awarded against the trust, but it declined to order reimbursement of alternative living arrangements for the descendant. However, on appeal to the Māori Appellate Court, the trust was ordered to pay these costs, in addition to the orders made by the Māori Land Court. This was based on the consequential loss suffered by the descendant, who had been unable to use the land. The damages totalled nearly $40,000.

This case illustrates the importance of trustees remaining actively involved and aware of what is occurring with any trust they are involved in. Trustees should meet regularly to review trust business and ensure good records are kept of any land use arrangements.

In this case, the trustees would likely have avoided what became a very expensive error, if the grazing agreement had been accurately recorded in writing and stored appropriately.

Peter Johnston
Māori Issues Lawyer