21 May 2020

Māori Land Court rules in favour of activists in fight over polluted Lake Horowhenua

1:49 pm on 21 May 2020

Two activists in a long-running fight over badly polluted Lake Horowhenua have had a big win in court.

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Lake Horowhenua, near Levin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Māori Land Court has ruled in favour of Phil Taueki and Charles Rudd.

The two have battled the lake's trustees elected to represent other beneficiary owners, and Taueki has had high-profile clashes with the district council.

Now the judge, in a 100-page ruling, says the trust could have got on with projects to try to protect the lake, if it had properly followed its own rules, but it did not.

It had done a u-turn in 2015, Judge Harvey said, away from a confrontational approach to central government and councils, towards a collaborative one, and sought funding for projects.

But the minority interests including Rudd argued they were being excluded.

The judge in the ruling said there was no doubt that many of the allegations of breaches of the trust's order had been established.

These together created an impression of "a series of behaviours and practices that fall well short of the standard trust beneficiaries might properly expect".

Phil Taueki has lived beside Lake Horowhenua for 13 years in protest at its degradation and the loss of his iwi's rights

Phil Taueki has had high-profile clashes with the district council. Photo: Supplied

It was "never going to be appropriate" for just three out of 11 trustees to appoint a chair to a role "that would see him paid in excess of $240,000 from trust funds over a two-year period".

"Or to appoint their colleagues to paying contractor roles without compliance with the trust order.

"... The lack of transparency over the annual accounts in terms of disclosing details of payments made to individual trustees from trust funds was also an egregious omission on the part of the former trustees."

The judge ruled that trustees Matthew Sword and Robert Warrington are not eligible to be reappointed, and should also resign as advisors.

Rudd's lawyer Linda Thornton said it was a landmark on a long road.

"Ultimately there were issues about protecting wāhi tapu and significant sites ... and my client was concerned about how decisions were being made.

"So we just kept pushing and pushing and that's how we got to where we got, 100 pages later."

The hope was there would be more transparency around decisions to protect the lake, Thornton said.

"In the Māori land law, Te Ture Whenua Māori, there is a provision that talks about the role of the court in protecting an oppressed minority against an unreasonable majority and vice versa.

"Like the judge says in this decision, you shouldn't have to bring on litigation in order to get this information.

"To our client that's what this vindicates."

The ruling can be appealed.

The judge said the appointment of three new trustees could go ahead.

Matthew Sword said there remained "live issues from the reserved judgement at this time".

"At this stage my only comment outside of the decision is that I fully support the new trustees on whatever pathway they choose to realise the dreams of our people for Lake Horowhenua.

"Achieving outcomes for the lake health regeneration is in everyone's interest."

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