Māori land and the Māori Land Court 

How is Māori land different from ordinary land?

The term “Māori land” refers to: 

  • land which is held by Māori according to tikanga Māori (Māori custom) 
  • Māori customary land which was converted to Māori freehold land (most Māori land is Māori freehold land)

There are restrictions on how the ownership of Māori land is transferred (e.g. through succession, selling or gifting). Māori land is generally kept within the owners’ whanau (family) or hapu (sub-tribe or kin group).

There are two types of owner of Māori land – legal owners and beneficial owners.

Legal owners are those whose names are on the legal title, while beneficial owners are not named. The legal owners must manage the land in the interests of the beneficial owners. If the land is held in a Māori land trust, the legal owners are the trustees and the beneficial owners are the beneficiaries.

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Who will inherit my Māori land share when I die?

If you have named one or more people to be your “successor” in your will, and they fall within the definition of a “preferred class of alienees”, then they will inherit the land.

If the person you want to leave the land to doesn’t fall into this category, you can instead give them a life interest in the land or a right to income from the land.

Information about how succession would work if you die without leaving a will is on the Community Law website and in the Māori Land Court booklet, Succession.

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What does “preferred class of alienees” mean?

In this context “alienation” means the granting of certain rights to the land, to another person or people - for example selling, gifting, leasing or mortgaging of Māori land.

If you want to sell or gift your interest in a piece of Māori land, you must first offer it to the "preferred class of alienees". These are the members of the whanau or hapu associated with that piece of land and include:

  • children and extended offspring of the owner transferring or selling land;  
  • whanaunga of the owner selling or transferring land, who are associated in accordance with tikanga Māori with the land;  
  • other beneficial owners (owners who are not registered on the legal title under the general Land Transfer system) of the land who are members of the hapu associated with the land;  
  • descendants of any former owner, who is or was a member of the hapu associated with the land;  
  • trustees of any person in the first three bullet points above.

More about this is on the Māori Land Court website.

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Can I build a house on Māori freehold land?

If you want to build and live in a house on Māori freehold land, first you’ll need to obtain either:

  • a licence to occupy from the owners, trustees (if the land is under a trust) or committee of management (if there is a Māori incorporation) or
  • an occupation order from the Māori Land Court.

Both options require you to consult with the owners, trustees and other interested parties to the land.

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I inherited some Māori land from my aunt. What will it mean for me?

As your aunt’s successor you will be entitled to make decisions about how the land is used and you can receive any payments (e.g. rents) associated with it. 

In order to complete the succession process you'll need to follow these steps:

1. Visit your nearest Māori Land Court registry and request a search of the Court records, so you can:

  • find out which block/s of land you have inherited and
  • find out who else has, or may have had, an interest in the land.

2. Make a succession application to the Court. The Court staff can help you with this. You’ll need to include certain required documents. When you file your application, Court staff will do a full search of the Māori Land records.

3. You or a family member will need to attend a hearing to answer questions from the Judge. You can choose to be represented by a lawyer. The Court staff can tell you whether you’ll need a lawyer for your application.

4. The Court will draw up a court order, which is entered in the Māori Land Information System and which will be reflected in the Māori Land Online database. If necessary it will also be sent to Land Information New Zealand to be registered.

If your aunt left a will naming you as the successor, you can apply to be the sole successor; if there is no will and you have siblings, they too must be included in your succession application.

More information about succession is on the Māori Land Court website.

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Can I sell my share in Māori land?

Māori freehold land can only be sold in accordance with the Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993.

If you own shares in a block of Māori land you are allowed to sell them, but generally only to someone who is in the “preferred class of alienees”.

If you have been unsuccessful in selling the land at a fair value to people who are in the “preferred class of alienee”, you can apply to the Māori Land Court for approval to sell to someone else. 

You will have to discuss any sale with your offspring (even if you are selling to one of them).

For more information, visit the Māori Land Court website.

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Where can we get help if we have a query or dispute relating to Māori land?

Ngāi Tahu Māori Law Centre is a specialist Māori law centre which provides free legal assistance to eligible people. They also have a mediation service with a kaupapa Māori focus (i.e. reflecting Māori aspirations, ideals, values and perspectives).

Many lawyers specialise in Māori legal issues. They can provide you with legal advice and represent you at hearings. If you can’t afford a lawyer you may be eligible for legal aid.

If you wish to make a claim  at the Māori Land Court, the court staff can help you with choosing the appropriate application form for your claim and tell you about how the Court processes work. They also provide general information about Māori land.

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What is the Māori Land Court and what does it do?

The Māori Land Court is a specialist court set up to hear matters relating to Māori land – its status, ownership, management and use – as well as Māori fisheries claims. For example you can apply to the Māori Land Court to set up a Māori land trust or to transfer your share or interest in Māori land to another person.

The Māori Land Court holds a register of all Māori land and, if an application has been made, can give approval for the transfer of Māori land ownership, establish Māori land trusts or Māori incorporations, or recommend the establishment of a Māori reservation.

At the registry offices and information offices you can:

  • obtain application forms and make an application to the Court; 
  • lodge an enquiry, for example to: 
    • find out whether you have any entitlement to interests in Māori land 
    • get details of Māori land trusts and Māori incorporations
  • talk to staff about Māori Land Court processes.

At the registry offices you can also look at historical Māori Land title and ownership.
You will find local and national contact details on their website.

More information about what the Māori Land Court does and how to make an application is on their website and in their downloadable information booklets.