Significant amendments to Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993 (“the 1993 Act”) came into effect on Waitangi Day, 6 February 2021.  The amendments make practical changes in relation to utilising Maori land for the betterment of Maori land owners, as well as technical changes to assist the Maori Land Court to operate more efficiently. 

The key changes in the legislation are as follows:

1. Succession and Trust Applications

Under the 1993 Act, Maori Land Court Judges decided all succession and trust applications. 

Simple and uncontested succession and trust applications can now be decided by a registrar of the Maori Land Court without a court hearing.  This is intended to reduce costs and help to speed up application processes. 

2. Succession and Descendants

Under the 1993 Act, a deceased landowners’ interest in Maori land passed to their surviving spouse or de facto partner for life or until remarriage, even if the spouse or partner did not whakapapa to the land. This would result in descendants who did whakapapa to the land not receiving an interest in their whenua until the spouse or partner entered a new relationship, died or surrendered their interest.

Under the amendments to the Act, the surviving spouse or partner does not receive the Maori land interest but is entitled to income from the land and to occupy the family home if it sits on Maori land.  Descendants can apply to succeed upon the death of the landowner.  This amendment enables descendants to succeed to Maori land, exercise voting rights, and have involvement in the use and management of the land much sooner. 

3. Dispute Resolution

The 1993 Act did not provide options for dispute resolution outside of the Maori Land Court.  This meant that disputes between whanau which escalated to a level where third party intervention was needed had to be resolved through a court hearing, which resulted in personal and sensitive whanau issues being discussed in a public environment.  

Now landowners are able to use a free mediation service provided by the Maori Land Court, which will be facilitated on the basis of tikanga.  This mediation service is intended to assist with the preservation of relationships and may be provided on marae.  This service is intended to create a much more accessible option for large groups of landowners, and help to avoid unnecessary litigation.

4. Occupation Orders

Occupation orders can be granted over Maori freehold and general land owned by Maori by the Maori Land Court.  Once owners have an occupation order, they can build on the land.  However prior to the amendments to the 1993 Act, beneficiaries of whanau trusts were not able to apply for occupation orders.  

Beneficiaries of whanau trusts can now be granted occupation orders.  This is intended to assist with Maori landowners being able to build homes and live on their whenua. 

5. Supporting Papakainga Housing

Occupation licenses to occupy marae and other Maori reservations have previously only been granted by trustees for up to 14 years, with no right of renewal.  These short term occupation licenses have become an obstacle for many iwi in developing papakainga housing.  

Now occupation licenses for papakainga housing can be granted for more than 14 years, with a right of renewal.  This is intended to remove a barrier to obtaining funding and allow for whenua to be utilised for papakainga housing and other uses. 

7. Extension of the role of the Maori Land Court

Under the 1993 Act, the Maori Land Court’s jurisdiction had been restricted such that it has been prevented from hearing certain matters that relate to Maori land, even though it may have been the most appropriate place to hear them.

The Maori Land Court will now be able to assess the cultural implications of how interests in Maori land should be dealt with.   As an example, this is evidenced by the assessment for granting access to landlocked Maori land undertaken by the Maori Land Court.  The Court will consider the relationship that the applicant has with the whenua and with any water, site, place of cultural or traditional significance, or other taonga associated with the land.  This is very different to the assessment that the High Court would undertake for a similar matter affecting general land.