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The M?ori Land Court was established in 1865 as the Native Land Court of New Zealand under the Native Lands Act. The court was established to facilitate the purchase of M?ori land by the Crown by converting collectively owned M?ori customary land into M?ori freehold land. The Act created the Native Land Court to identify ownership interests in M?ori land and to create individual titles (in place of customary communal title) that were recognisable in English law. Under the Native Lands Act 1865 only ten owners could be listed on land titles issued by the court.
As outlined by Williams, "government policy from 1858 onwards ... sought to introduce a rapid individualisation of ancestral M?ori land in order to ensure the availability of most of that land for settlement by Pakeha settlers". A continuation of the native land policies of 1862, the intention outlined in the Preamble of the 1865 Act was "to encourage the extinction of such [native] proprietary customs". One means of fulfilling this intention was to limit to ten the number of owners able to be issued a Certificate of Title. Francis Fenton was the chief judge from 1865 to 1882.
The court caused major ructions within some iwi as the court gave a democratic power to ordinary M?ori that previously had been the domain of chiefs only. Judges often heard weeks of oral evidence to prove a claim to the land. Judges were totally independent from the government and their decisions were binding on the government. Judges often made their own rules as points of law arose but the general principle was equity. One of the most dramatic cases was the claim of Ngati Mutanga for their previous land in North Taranaki in 1870. The entire iwi abandoned the Chatham Islands (which they had invaded in 1835) to come to the court hearing.
The court encouraged M?ori to sell land to private buyers. But the Crown remained the biggest purchaser. Most M?ori-owned land was sold during the economic recession of the 1890s. 2.7 million acres was sold to the government and 400,000 acres to private individuals. The Native Lands (Validation of Title) Act 1892 was passed by the Liberal government to stop any type of fraudulent deals and to give security of title to purchasers. The Act guaranteed M?ori a reasonable price for their land. The government on-sold most of its M?ori land, often for a profit. The rationale behind the legislation was to unlock under-used land owned by M?ori (and also pastoralists with vast landholdings) and sell it to "thrifty, hardworking industrious and independent hardworking individuals."  The Liberals saw this as essential economic development. By 1939, almost 100 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, M?ori retained just 1 percent of the South Island and 9 percent of the North Island. Land losses continued as the 20th century progressed, again supported by legislation.
During the 1950s and 1960s there was a major review of M?ori land legislation. It was recognised that the previous legislative framework had had a detrimental effect on M?ori society and the new legislation attempted to improve the situation by giving the a stronger focus on protecting M?ori land from alienation.
In 1954, the Native Land Court name was changed to the M?ori Land Court. Originally the court was established to translate customary M?ori land claims into legal land titles recognisable under English law. In 1993, the Te Ture Whenua M?ori Act  expanded the court's jurisdiction to allow it to hear cases on all matters related to M?ori land.
The court has no centralised courthouse but has a head office in Wellington and sits in various cities and towns in New Zealand as needed. The court maintains registries in Whangarei, Hamilton, Rotorua, Gisborne, Whanganui, and Christchurch. It also has information offices in Auckland and Turangi.
The M?ori Land Court districts are:
Appeals from the M?ori Land Court are heard by the M?ori Appellate Court, which consists of a panel of three (or more) judges of the M?ori Land Court. The M?ori Land Court or the M?ori Appellate Court may request an opinion on a matter of law from the High Court of New Zealand; such decisions are binding on the M?ori Land Court. Appeals from the M?ori Appellate Court, if permitted, lie with the Court of Appeal, and from there to the Supreme Court.
M?ori land is a unique status of land in New Zealand. The definition of M?ori land is provided by section 129 of Te Ture Whenua M?ori Act 1993. The Act recognises M?ori land as taonga tuku iho, a treasure to be handed down. The M?ori Land Court promotes the retention and use of M?ori land; and facilitates the occupation, development and use of that land.
In pre-European times, the system of M?ori land ownership was based on rights to occupy and use ancestral land. These rights were not held by individuals, but collectively by all members of a hap? or iwi.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, two methods were used by the Crown to obtain M?ori land: Crown acquisition and, after the passage of the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, raupatu. Conflict relating to the sale of land to settlers led to the enactment of the Native Lands Act 1865.
M?ori Freehold Land came into being in one of three ways. Either it was set aside by the Crown from the M?ori customary land purchased for the settlement of New Zealand; the ownership of M?ori customary land has been investigated by the M?ori Land Court and a freehold order has been issued; or the M?ori Land Court has determined its status as M?ori freehold land.
M?ori customary land is held in accordance with tikanga M?ori and has not been converted to M?ori freehold land by the M?ori Land Court.
M?ori Land Court judges are appointed by warrant issued by the Governor-General of New Zealand.