Māori Land Administration: Client Service Performance of the Māori Land Court Unit and the Māori Trustee.

Māori Land and Its Administration

Māori Land owners are part of a complex land system that owners of General Land are not. The complexity of the Māori Land system is a product of history – arising from the efforts of past governments to reconcile customary Māori communal ownership of land with an individual title system based on British land laws. Today, about 1.5 million hectares – or about 6% of New Zealand’s total land area – are Māori Land.

Māori Land generally has multiple owners. The ownership of Māori Land titles is divided into more than 2.3 million interests – comparable to the number of interests in the other 94% of New Zealand’s land area. As owners die and their descendants inherit their interests – which can only be achieved by applying to the Māori Land Court Te Kooti Whenua Māori – the number of owners of Māori Land increases and the fragmentation of Māori Land ownership continues. Multiple ownership makes administration of the land problematic, and has inherent costs that increase over time.

Judges from the Māori Land Court have jurisdiction to oversee dealings in, and the administration of, Māori Land. The Māori Land Court Unit of the Ministry of Justice Tāhū o te Ture (the Ministry) provides administrative support for the Judges as well as information and advisory services for Māori Land owners.

The Māori Trustee2 Te Kaitiaki Māori (the Trustee) works within the Māori Land system to manage Māori Land on behalf of owners who engage the Trustee’s services.

The client service provided by the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee influences the ease with which Māori Land owners are able to administer and manage their land.

We investigated the effectiveness of the client service provided by the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee. We assessed selected operations of the two organisations, and considered how they interact with each other and with other organisations. Our audit did not extend to examining either the exercise of the Trustee’s fiduciary duties in respect of specific beneficiaries or the judicial functions of Judges of the Māori Land Court. This would not have been within our powers.

The service provided to owners of Māori Land by the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee should be of the highest quality. As stated in our 1999 report: Towards Service Excellence: The Responsiveness of Government Agencies to Their Clients3, excellent service is defined as being responsive to the needs of clients. We examined whether the services provided by the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee met our expectations as adapted from that report.

The Māori Land Court

The Māori Land Court is the only Court with specific jurisdiction over Māori Land, as conferred by Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 (the Act). Owners of Māori Land must apply to the Māori Land Court if they want to administer their land. This is different to General Land where, for example, a person does not need to apply to a Court to succeed to land interests left to them.

In 1995, a report on the operations of the Māori Land Court Unit (then administered by the Department of Justice) was highly critical of the Unit’s lack of a client service focus.4 In response, the then Department for Courts made significant changes to improve its service for clients. We considered the changes made since 1995, whether they worked, and where future improvements could be made.

Changes Made by the Ministry of Justice Since 1995

Four of the changes implemented by the Ministry as a consequence of the findings of the 1995 report were:

  • introduction of strategic planning;
  • appointment of Advisory Officers;
  • introduction of the Māori Land Information System (MLIS); and
  • adoption of case management.

Strategic planning within the Māori Land Court Unit has markedly improved, with the introduction of a strategic plan which is supported by information gathered from client surveys, and the development of an Operational Resource Model that measures the time taken to process specific types of application.

The Māori Land Court Unit has appointed 13 Advisory Officers to improve access to services for Māori Land owners. The introduction of Advisory Officers has been a successful initiative to improve client service, although the Unit needs to review the Advisory Officers’ role to ensure that they are best able to meet the needs of the Unit’s clients.

The introduction of an electronic database called the Māori Land Information System (MLIS) has greatly improved Māori Land owners’ access to records. Adoption of case management means that individual staff have responsibility for managing an application through all stages of the process. Case management brings continuity to the process, which is beneficial for client service.

Overall, the Māori Land Court Unit is providing a good level of service to its clients in the areas outlined above. Nevertheless, we discuss below some areas where the Unit’s client service could be improved.

Where Could the Māori Land Court Unit Improve Client Service Performance?

We identified three areas where improvements could be made to the Māori Land Court Unit’s client service performance:

  • management and reporting of applications;
  • training of case managers; and
  • standardisation between registries.

Applications can be delayed for a range of reasons, some of which are outside the Unit’s control. For example, the Unit might not be able to process an application because it is waiting for further evidence or information from the applicant, or the application is a complicated one (such as section 45 applications for amendment of the Māori Land Court’s record) that require special consideration by a Judge.

There are two main reasons for the backlog of unprocessed applications:

  • Māori Land Court registries give priority to new applications over old ones that may have stalled for various reasons; and
  • the complexity of some applications.

To address these delays, the Unit should:

  • focus on improving the time it takes to complete an application; and
  • take the initiative to finish applications that have been on hand for more than a year.

The Māori Land Court Unit has recently set targets relating to the completion of applications from previous years, and will have the ability to improve its case management systems in the Unit based on the new Timeliness Report released in December 2003.

The Māori Land Court Unit also drew our attention to rule 38 of the Māori Land Court Rules 1994.5 This provides for the disposal under certain circumstances of outstanding applications, through recommendations made by Registrars of the Māori Land Court to the Court. We understand that the Registrars have not referred cases to the Court under rule 38 recently. The Māori Land Court Unit told us that it intended to encourage greater use by Registrars of the mechanism provided by rule 38. We support this initiative.

The Unit does not have a formal training programme, though it has devised relevant training modules for Māori Land Court Unit staff. This means that the training of case managers has simply been what is provided within the teams in which they work. While this has advantages, there are also disadvantages – such as the difficulty of ensuring consistency of training between teams. Training of case managers to a consistently high standard has the potential to greatly improve client service performance.

The current lack of standardisation for some practices and processes (such as the format of application forms and minutes of hearings) for Māori Land Court registries has a negative impact on client service. Variations particularly affect Māori Land Court clients who own land in more than one Māori Land Court registry district, as they are exposed to different requirements and levels of service at each registry. We recognise that the Māori Land Court Unit has attempted in the past to introduce standardisation in certain areas, and still views it as an area for improvement.

The Māori Trustee

The Trustee administers Māori Land through the Māori Trust Office (MTO), which is part of the Ministry of Māori Development Te Puni Kōkiri (TPK). This includes asset management (both property and financial) and other services (such as payments). The Trustee administers about 7% of all Māori Land.

The Trustee operates in a competitive market – and most of the Trustee’s clients are not obliged to keep their land under his administration. In other words, most Māori Land owners, if they are dissatisfied with the service provided by the Trustee, can take administration of their land from him and place it with another administrator, or undertake that role themselves.

Overall, the Trustee is providing his clients with a good level of client service, despite the complexities of working within the Māori Land system. Nevertheless, we discuss below some areas where the Trustee’s client service could be improved.

Where Could the Trustee Improve Client Service Performance?

We identified four areas where improvements could be made to the Trustee’s client service performance:

  • establishing more qualitative land management performance measures – particularly in relation to rent collection and review;
  • providing Reports to Owners;
  • maintaining client account records; and
  • implementing a time-recording system.

Significant improvements have been made in respect of rent reviews and the reduction of rent arrears. However, the performance measures used by the Trustee do not take into account the client service aspects of property management, particularly in regard to timeliness and quality of service.

For some blocks of land, the Trustee produces Reports to Owners that contain details about the block of land, its background, valuation, financial issues, and ownership. The Trustee should establish a set of criteria to determine which owners should receive these reports and whether or not a formal meeting is required (as opposed to simply mailing out the information), based on the costs and potential benefits to the owners of receiving them.

The Trustee distributes an average of about $5 million a year to clients, and therefore needs to maintain an accurate and complete record of Māori Land owners and beneficiaries. However, a backlog of Court orders and correspondence for processing makes it difficult for the Trustee to maintain the record. We consider that the Trustee should draw up a strategy to reduce this backlog. We recognise that this has funding implications, because processing Court orders is labour-intensive.

The Trustee does not operate any form of time-recording system that allocates staff time to individual clients as a matter of course. This means that the Trustee is unaware of the true cost of administering each block of land. The implementation of a time-recording system would ensure accurate recording of the costs and time taken to administer particular blocks of land.

Risks to the Trustee’s Future Performance

We identified three areas of risk to the Trustee’s future client service performance:

  • the ongoing government review of the Trustee’s role and functions;
  • institutional knowledge; and
  • staff training to meet the changing needs of the Trustee’s portfolio.

The role and functions of the Trustee have been under review by the Government for more than 10 years, and a resolution appears some way off. Completing the review (something this Office considered necessary in 20016) would reduce some of the uncertainties of the Trustee’s operating environment, and allow full attention to be given to client service, including attending to the backlog mentioned above.

The Trustee’s staff are able to provide a high standard of service to clients because of the length of service and knowledge of many of the staff. However, the Trustee is a small organisation and we saw little evidence of planning for future staff turnover. We consider that a process should be put in place so that valuable institutional knowledge built up by individual staff is not lost to the organisation when they leave.

To meet any changing land development demands, the Trustee should consider whether additional training (for example, in the area of business planning or finance) would increase the ability of staff to improve client service.

Communication and Co-ordination Between Agencies Involved With Māori Land

Opportunities exist to increase the amount of interaction between the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee so that clients receive a more seamless service. There is also a need to better communicate and co-ordinate the interactions among all agencies involved with Māori Land issues to ensure that the best outcome for their clients is achieved.

Exchange of Information Between the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee

Processing Court orders and recording client addresses are two areas where additional interaction between the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee would create further benefits for clients. Both areas can be partly addressed by improving information exchange between the two organisations. However, in our view, it is important that a centralised database of Māori Land owner addresses is established for the benefit of all the parties involved with Māori Land.

Interaction with Various Other Agencies in the Māori Land Sector

We examined a range of initiatives that involve the Māori Land Court Unit and the Trustee and other agencies in the Māori Land sector. Some of these initiatives, such as the Capacity Building programme and the Heartland Services programme, are positive examples of co-ordination between agencies in the Māori Land sector.

A number of government departments have introduced initiatives with the intention of assisting Māori Land owners, but which have been designed with the objective of meeting the needs of the particular government agency. This has resulted in a number of projects that overlap, but do not always complement each other. For example, there is an abundance of databases in different agencies in the sector regarding Māori Land.

We recommend that an inter-agency committee should be established:

  • to co-ordinate and prioritise projects, and to assign responsibility to the agencies best placed to carry them out; and
  • to act as a forum for the exchange of information between agencies with an involvement in Māori Land (such as TPK and Land Information New Zealand), and to consider proposals from Māori and/or other commercial interests for the use of Māori Land.

2: In this report, we use the term “the Trustee“ when talking about either the Māori Trustee as a person or about the organisation which carries out the Trustee’s responsibilities, otherwise known as the Māori Trust Office (MTO). This is an accepted convention. Where necessary – to distinguish the MTO from the individual – we refer specifically to the MTO.

3: August 1999, ISBN 0-477-02867-5.

4: See paragraphs 3.12-3.13 on page 38 for details of the 1995 report.

5: S.R. 1994/35.

6: Report of the Controller and Auditor-General, Māori Trustee – Governance and Accountability, Central Government: Results of the 2000-01 Audits, parliamentary paper B.29 [01b], 2001, pages 89-103.

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