August 31, 2014
River ownership in doubt
Maori water claimants are taking heart from a Supreme Court judgment that has thrown open the question of who owns New Zealand’s riverbeds.
The court was considering whether a claim by the Pouakani Trust on behalf of a number of hapu over the ownership of part of the Waikato River near Mangakino.
Pouakani had already won a case that the stretch of river was not navigable, so therefore it had not passed into Crown ownership under the Coal Mines Act 1903.
They went back to court to challenge the English common law rule that when land beside a river was sold, the sale also included up to the mid point of the river.
They argued that if and when their ancestors sold they did not understand that rule, so therefore the crown has a duty to hold the river for the benefit of Maori.
The court rejected that argument, but went on to say that the so called ad medium filum rule may not apply either.
What matters is the custom and usage of the native vendors, and it’s not clear that the crown owns the riverbed at all.
Pouakani spokesperson Tamati Cairns says it’s a major victory for Maori throughout New Zealand.
He says the next step for the trust will be to pursue its claims through Stage 2 of the Waitangi Tribunal Inquiry into water issues.
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