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Historic claim heads to Māori Land Court

A Wairarapa man and his whānau have been fighting to reclaim ancestral land in Te Whiti for almost three decades after they allege it was incorrectly included in an aggregation order by the Māori Land Court [MLC].

Russell Reiri and his family claim that land block 1C2B2 should never have been included in the aggregation order in 1996.

An aggregation order request was filed with the MLC by Joseph Gartner on behalf of the Te Whiti South Trust in May 1994 to aggregate 14 blocks, none of which were 1C2B2, according to Reiri.

A special meeting was held on December 14, 1995, with owners of the 14 blocks to seek their consent in aggregating them, but 1C2B2 was not included on the list and therefore none of the landowners for this block were in attendance.

During a meeting of landowners on January 27, 1996, there were references to block 1C2B2 in the minutes, but it was still not added to the 14 blocks in the application for aggregation.

Owners who attended this meeting had their attendance signed and notarised, which is where Reiri says the trouble began.

His mother signed the attendance sheet, and this was later presented in court alongside the minutes of the meeting, something Reiri insists is a “misrepresentation in court to indicate the owners had agreed to aggregate the land”.

The court hearing for the original aggregation application with 14 blocks was held on February 8, 1996, when evidence was provided, including notice of the meeting, minutes of the meeting, and schedule of landowners present.

This is when it is claimed that 1C2B2 was aggregated in error by Te Whiti South trustee Rex Hemi and former chair Jack Hemi.

Neither Reiri nor his mother attended this court hearing as they weren’t notified – something which he says is due to their land not being included in the aggregation application.

The minute schedule of the court hearing references 15 blocks despite the formal application only covering 14, and the additional block was 1C2B2.

Reiri says his whānau block was then added to the aggregation without consultation or permission from the landowners.

Minutes from the hearing suggest that one of the trustees requested the addition of 1C2B2 to the aggregation at the last minute, but there is no clear indication as to what proof of consent was given to the overseeing judge at the time.

Reiri says the insult doesn’t stop there, with the Te Whiti Trust demanding a fence be erected around 1C2B2 and that he contribute financially to it as he is also the adjoining land owner, leaving him out of pocket by several thousand dollars.

During the court sitting on August 24, 2004, at which Reiri was told he must pay for the fence, Rex Hemi on behalf of the trust said payment was needed within seven days.

The judge sympathised with Reiri and gave him 21 days instead.

An application is now before the Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court to have the block of land removed from the aggregation.

When the Te Whiti Trust held a ceremony to celebrate the newly built papakāinga [where Māori live together communally on ancestral land] at Te Whiti on Saturday [March 9], where Reiri and his whānau staged a silent protest.

Although Reiri supports the papakāinga development, he said he can’t support past actions or “how they got there”.

His parents had been trying to reclaim the land when they died and Reiri said the court case with the MLC is his “last chance”.

The application to the MLC was made on July 30, 2021.

Reiri said the land is special to him and his whānau.

The property where he currently lives houses Te Poho o Tu Ta Wake – the whānau marae where he lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

He said the purpose of his protest was to “get it out there” as he isn’t sure how many people associated with the Te Whiti South Trust will know about the aggregation dispute.

He believes the trust took his land illegally and is upset they took him to court to pay for the fence.

Reiri said there has been “no acknowledgement” of what happened and that he just wants someone to “take some sort of responsibility”.

He said the current trust chair has held their position for 10 years and has “failed to resolve the issue”.

The current chair of Te Whiti South Trust Mark Rutene did not wish to comment for this story while the matter is before the courts.

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