25 Oct 2018

Waitangi tribunal judges burnt out - Chief Judge speaks out

11:32 am on 25 October 2018

Waitangi Tribunal judges are burnt out and overworked as the tribunal hits a decade without a funding boost.

Chief Judge Wilson Isaac, the chair of the Waitangi Tribunal, sitting at his desk in Wellington.

Chief Judge Wilson Isaac, the chair of the Waitangi Tribunal, sitting at his desk in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

The chair, Chief Judge Wilson Isaac, said there is not enough funding for contemporary claims and that the tribunal can not continue picking up the slack.

"We are really stretched in the court," he said.

"There is burn out for some of our judges, there is burn out for some of our staff. It is a juggling act."

He said the tribunal has been running off $8 million a year for a decade but now it is having to pay for expensive research for the newer kaupapa claims.

"It is not just the funding - it is the staffing. I find it difficult to appoint tribunals to hear claims because we do not have the numbers."

The tribunal has mostly focused on historical claims for over 30 years. Historical claims are funded by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust (CFRT) and claimants can seek funding for lawyers, research, administration and hearing costs.

But claimants for the kaupapa inquiries only have access to Legal Aid, which generally only covers the cost of lawyers.

And it is putting pressure on the tribunal.

"Funds are required for the research, funds are required to enable the claimants to get to the hearings ... and the tribunal is left holding the baby, which won't continue to work."

The tribunal is fielding more claims for kaupapa inquiries, which are nationally significant issues affecting Māori as a whole.

The Health Services and Outcomes Inquiry is being heard in Ngaruawāhia at the moment, and other inquiries about housing and education are in the pipeline.

Victoria University law lecturer Carwyn Jones said they are complex issues that need decent research.

"It can be a really intensive process and it is very important that it is properly funded and resourced to do a good job."

New Zealand Māori Council chair Sir Eddie Durie said the tribunal needs more funding and that the money could be carved out of the Legal Aid budget.

In 2016/2017, Legal Aid spend for Waitangi Tribunal claims was $15.5 million.

But Sir Eddie, who chaired the tribunal from 1980 to 2004, said too many claimants are getting that funding for claims that are not in the interest of all Māori - and that needs to stop.

"They are draining off the Legal Aid," he said.

"If we could get the reduction in Legal Aid by reducing the role of those who appear with lawyers when they do not represent significant interest...

"Then I think the government would find that there is enough funding there to meet the needs of the Waitangi Tribunal."

Chief Judge Wilson Isaac wants to see a new fund set up to support the kaupapa claims, in the same way historical claims are funded by CFRT.

"It puts Māori claimants in a very uneven playing field, in that the Crown have got all the resources.

"They can certainly resource the research needed in response to the claims, but Māori do not have the resources needed to research their own claims."

Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta would not be interviewed but said she was seeking expressions of interest to potentially hire two new judges to the Māori Land Court.

Chief Judge Wilson Isaac of the Māori Land Court said that will help in that arena, but the issue remains in the tribunal.

He is hopeful a solution will come quick - come December, there will be an inquiry almost every day of month.

"It is huge. Every single day in December is taken up with an inquiry."