A Brief Introduction to Maori Land Law

Auckland cityscape, North Island, New Zealand

The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, and the word “maori” actually means ‘the local people’. They lived in isolation for centuries before the arrival of European settlers. As such, they developed a unique culture and way of life that persists to this day, and this includes land ownership.

If you have plans to own, lease or build on Maori land, you will have to consult with a Maori land lawyer and ask for professional assistance. You will understand why after you read this brief introduction to Maori land law.

Customary land

The Native Land (Te Ture Whenua Māori) Act of 1993 defines Maori land as one of two types. One is Maori Customary Land, which used to be the only type of Maori land before the colonisation of New Zealand. Currently, there are less than 700 hectares of customary land left. There is no title or deed, and no formal investigation by The Māori Land Court (Te Kōti Whenua Māori). As the name suggests, the basis of ownership is on customary values and practices (Tikanga Māori).

Freehold land

The other type of Maori land is Māori Freehold Land, which transformed from customary land in three possible ways. One is by freehold order by the Maori Land Court and another is through a Crown grant given to an individual. The last one is by the determination by the Maori Land Court. There are currently 1.4 million hectares of freehold land, roughly 5 percent of the total land area of New Zealand.

Legal issues

You cannot simply own or use Maori land as you would any other type of land in New Zealand. The Maori Land Act restricts the transfer of ownership of Maori land by death of or sale by the legal owner. You must be in the preferred class of alienees to inherit, buy or receive it as a gift. This includes members of the family (whanau) or tribe (hap) and their descendants. If you do not fit the definition, you will have to go through the Maori Land Court for anything you want to do with Maori land, even leasing it.