New Zealand Law Society - Challenges of practising Māori land law

Challenges of practising Māori land law

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If someone had told Haines Ellison when he was at secondary school that he would spend the first seven years of his working life as a lawyer specialising in Māori land law, he would have been somewhat surprised.

Mr Ellison’s original intention was to become a planner. So he embarked on a BA in Geography at Otago University. At the same time, he also thought he’d undertake first year law to see how he’d fare.

Getting into second year law was not particularly easy, but Mr Ellison achieved that, thinking that law study would be helpful for a planner.

When he graduated with a double degree in 2008, it was around the time of the recession that followed the global financial crisis, and there were not many jobs for planners available. At the same time, he was aware that a job was coming up at the Ngāi Tahu Māori Law Centre, so he applied and started as a law clerk in 2009, becoming a solicitor once he had completed his professionals and was admitted.

Lawyering, therefore, happened “a little bit by default,” he says.

Initially, he intended his role at the Dunedin-based law centre to be a stepping stone, as previous lawyers had been with the centre a year or two before moving on.

But he has stayed longer than expected. Part of that has been that he and his colleague at the centre, Desiree Williams, have been working to grow the law centre – increasing its profile and the type of work that it carries out.

“So if you had told me at secondary school that I would be working in Māori land law, I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised, but I would have been surprised if you’d told me I’d be here for seven years.”

Part of the reason he has stayed so long is that he considers it has been good for the law centre, and part of the reason is that it has been good for the centre’s clients.

“With Māori land law, genealogy comes into it almost all the time,” he says. “If you are familiar with clients’ family tree, it saves you having to go through that information again.

“It saves time for the client as well as ourselves. If you know the family, you know what lands they are in.

“If I left, that would be a concern for me: my clients. That is one of the good things about the job.”

Although he would like to expand into other areas of the law, Mr Ellison does enjoy Māori land law.

“A lot of the work is facts-based and it involves researching whakapapa.

“A lot of the work is succession through the Māori Land Court and a lot is forming management structures.

“A lot also involves old estates. It’s not uncommon for us to be dealing with estates from the 80s and earlier.

“I think there is a lot of potential for Māori land law.”

It is also challenging, he says.

“There are challenges they don’t teach you at law school such as people skills. Engaging with a client in a manner they feel comfortable is paramount, particularly when they are sharing intimate family information with you.”

There are challenges in terms of working with clients – advising them what their best option is and working with them through these processes.”

Clients may not necessarily have the correct facts, either. They may believe they own three paddocks, when in fact they are among multiple owners of the three paddocks.

“We are trying to increase awareness out there of the challenges faced by owners of Māori land and how these challenges can be overcome.”

Not all the misinformed are general members of the public either. Even some mainstream bodies, including councils, are not aware of some of the procedural and factual situations that owners of Māori land face.

Having been at the Ngāi Tahu Māori Law Centre for seven years now, 2015 may be the year that change comes about, Mr Ellison says. “I’ve thought that this year was the year I would start thinking more seriously about options for the future.”

As well as his involvement with the law centre, Mr Ellison serves a number of other organisations.

He is on the board of a private training provider, is a Dunedin representative on Te Huinga Roia Māori o Aotearoa (Māori Law Society), is on the registrations committee of Kati Huirapa Runaka Ki Puketeraki – a Marae at Karitane, just north of Dunedin – and is a mediator at Dunedin Community Mediation.

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