Taranaki Whānui members attempting to overturn the sale of Marukaikuru/Shelly Bay land to property developer the Wellington Company, have been buoyed by the Māori Land Court's ruling this week that it has jurisdiction to hear their claims.
The Taranaki Whānui ki te Ūpoko o te Ika applicants want the sale declared unlawful and the land returned to iwi on the bases of legal claims of breach of trust and knowing receipt.
On Tuesday, Judge Stone ruled that the court could consider the claims, rejecting efforts by the lawyers for the developer, Ian Cassels, to have the case struck out for lack of jurisdiction.
Despite the land titles passing to the developer, the applicants claim that the true ownership remains with the members of Taranaki Whānui and that the developer holds the titles in trust for the iwi members - meaning it could potentially be returned to its "rightful owners", Mau Whenua, a group which opposes the current development, said in a release.
“We know there is a long way to go but this is a crucial step,” Mau Whenua spokesperson Dr Catherine Love said, who added that the group is "very pleased" with the decision.
The claims of breach of trust and knowing receipt arise, the release said, because the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust sold the land despite iwi members voting against the sale (in breach of the trust deed) and the property developer bought the land knowing that the trust was not authorised to sell it (knowing receipt).
"It has acknowledged a possible avenue for accountability and redress," Dr Love said of the court's decision.
"We can now continue the whawhai (fight) in the Māori Land Court for the return of our whenua Māori at Marukaikuru/Shelly Bay.
“The court has acknowledged that, if the applicants can show the developer knew that less than the required number of iwi members had voted for the sale, and that the rules were wrongly manipulated to get around that, then the developer does not own the land.”
Dr Love said the group is mindful of those who have gone before them.
“As we prepare for the next stages of the whawhai, we remember the generations that have dedicated their lives to the same fight for justice and equality and mihi to them as we follow in their footsteps.”
Judge Stone in his decision acknowledged there was no dispute that 'the land in question is of special significance to Taranaki Whānui’, the release said.
The Wellington Company and Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust have been approached for comment.
This article has been updated to reference Taranaki Whānui members in the title and opening sentence.