In 1865 the New Zealand Parliament, entirely Pakeha, passed
"An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Laws relating to Lands in the Colony in which the Māori Proprietary Customs still exist and to provide for the ascertainment of the Titles to such lands and for Regulating the Descent thereof and for other purposes."
This was The Native Lands Act 1865, successor to an ineffective Act of 1862, which set up the Native (later Māori) Land Court of New Zealand, to be the court of record for investigation into the titles of Māori land and title succession.
A Judge of the Court was to work with at least two assessors and an interpreter.
Any "native" could claim, in writing, interest in a specified piece of land, and ask the court to investigate so that a Crown title might be issued. A claimant was to state the name of the iwi or the names of others who had an interest.
News of the application was to be circulated and the court could summon witnesses, but not all those concerned were at hearings to register an interest.
Under the 1865 Act, up to 10 owners only could be registered on a Certificate of Title, but in 1873 this limit was removed.
For every hearing Māori had to pay fees. If they could not pay, charges were placed against the land. Appeals could be made against decisions, but at further cost.
The court could not make a decision unless an authorised survey of the land had been presented to the Court. The cost of the survey was borne by Māori .
Where a person with an interest in land died without leaving a will to dispose of that interest, the court could be asked to hear evidence and determine succession, according to law and "native custom". The court could process a will for probate.
The court could also hear requests to subdivide land blocks.
The Native Land Court was known to Māori as "the Land-Taking Court". While its official purpose was to give Māori title to their land under Pakeha systems, and this did happen, the real purpose of the Native Land Court was to make it easier for Pakeha to acquire land from Māori .
Court decisions often gave Māori less land than they believed right. More significantly the duration of court cases and Māori costs often resulted in debts which could only be paid through a mortgage on the land or its sale, perhaps at far less than its real value. Once Māori had title they could sell land directly to Pakeha, until Crown pre-emption was re-introduced 1893-1909. Even land designated "inalienable" by the Court could be lost to Māori.
Sittings of the court began hearings into cases brought to them in 1865, though most sequences of Minute Books begin somewhat later. They continue today.
A judge presided at each court hearing. Some understood te reo Māori, others had interpreters to assist. A Judge sometimes kept his own notes, which have become Judges’ Note Books in the Māori Land Court Minute Book collection. Technically these are not Minute Books, but they add to understanding.
A judge was assisted by a clerk, who kept the minutes in English of the hearing. A few clerks in the 19th century understood te reo Māori, others, like judges, relied on interpreters. The clerk created an index of names and block names in a Minute Book.
The judge was assisted in his work by one or more assessors, usually Māori, though not from the area of the hearing. They assisted with translation and with understanding the intricacies of Māori whakapapa and connection to the land. A few Assessor Books, in Māori, have survived, where assessors recorded for themselves what was said in court. Other Asessor Books are known to be held by descendants.
Archives New Zealand in Wellington holds original Minute Books (MB) from all seven Māori Land Court (MLC) districts. Most date from 1865-1962 or -1975. Originals are not available to researchers.
Many copies are held, in microfilm (some to after 1975) and reproduction forms. All are listed on Archway.
Key sequences are local MB (see below), but others include Alienation, Appellate and Consolidation MB, Adoption and Assessors’ Books, and Judges’ Note Books. Succession was often recorded in ordinary MB or in Succession Books. Māori-run Block Committees 1900-05 in Taitokerau & Tairawhiti, and District Māori Land Boards from 1905 (led by Pakeha) both created MB.
There is overlap between districts. Many Waikato-Maniapoto cases were held in Auckland (Taitokerau), and Tauranga MB are under Waikato-Maniapoto. Some South Island cases were held in the North Island.
A few MB are missing, there was sometimes confusion in the numbering, and not all MB are sequential – two MB might be in use at the same time. Some sequences of MB overlap, notably Otorohanga and Waikato. Judges’ Note Books often cover a variety of places and regions, complementing a number of MB.
The main regional groups of records are listed below, but not all the "extra" MB, nor some shorter sequences.
Some MB are held only on microfilm. Reproduction copies of many MBs are available in our Auckland office. Microfilm copies of Papatupu MB (Northland) are held at Auckland University.
Many Judges’ Books, such as Otorohanga and Waikato overlap. Some MB are held only on microfilm. Reproduction copies of many MB are available in our Auckland Office.
Also: District Māori Land Board books. Some MB are held only on microfilm. Reproduction copies of many MB are available in our Auckland Office.
Also: Māori Land Board 1902-52, Validation Court 1894-1910, etc. A few Gisborne MB are available only on microfilm.
A number of reproduction versions are available in our Wellington Office.
Some Judges’ Books. Many reproduction versions are available in our Wellington Office.
Reproductions of most are available in our Christchurch Office.
A database for MB 1865-1910, created by Auckland University, is held in Archives New Zealand offices and elsewhere. Searches can be made by land block name, by witness name, etc, leading to specific page references in individual MB. This gives the best access to MB up to 1910.
A database of all MLC MB holdings has been created. A paper copy is available at the Reading Room desk in Wellington and Archives staff can find a digital version.
This lists all versions of MB held, whether original, reproduction, microfilm or digital, gives the dates of each MB and the places of hearings.
Some MB originally held items such as maps and whakapapa which are larger than the MB. These are held separately for preservation reasons and are listed with MB in Archway.
Archives New Zealand holds some MLC files, created as a result of cases recorded in MB, but many files are still held by the MLC.
Archives New Zealand can organise for copies of MB to be made. Enquiries about this service, costs and delivery, should be made using our general enquiries form.