Court Ruling About Land Occupation Rights In Cooks Questioned

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60 year limit to occupation rights becoming huge national issue

By Florence Syme-Buchanan

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Sept. 16, 2015) – Opposition to controversial new Land Court rules applying to the land occupation rights of Cook Islanders is fast gaining momentum and looks to become a huge national issue.

Koutu Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth says two vaka meetings have already established that there’s "overwhelming" opposition to the new rules that came into effect earlier this year.

Terea Mataiapo says there’s major concern over the way the Land Court decided upon the new rules without consultation or "any kind of dialogue" with the aronga mana and people of the Cook Islands.

"We are very, very concerned that these changes contained in a practice note circulated amongst lawyers and judges haven’t been communicated in any way with the aronga mana and people of this country."

Before the changes, occupation rights were granted to landowners in perpetuity. The changes include limiting occupation right to just 60 years, similar to a lease. Terea Mataiapo says the change means irrespective of how the landowner holding the occupation right has developed his or her land, it will not pass to their offspring once the occupation right exceeds 60 years. "The land goes back to the family and the family make the decision who gets the property."

A practice note endorsed by Chief Justice Tom Weston containing the occupation right changes was accidentally given to a member of the Aronga Mana from Tupapa/Maraerenga district. A practice note is normally only distributed to lawyers and judges and sets out a rule of practice that will be followed by counsel and/or judges or both.

Other significant changes include limiting the size of occupation right land to quarter of an acre and limiting how many occupation rights an individual can hold. People holding occupation rights will not be able to use their land for rental properties or commercial purposes without first obtaining Land Court approval.

Terea Mataiapo says these new rules have significant and huge implications for Cook Islands landowners – excluding the islands of Mangaia, Mitiaro and Pukapuka which still retain customary land practices.

The new rules have been likened to disenfranchising Cook Islands people from their land. One landowner, who didn’t wish to be named, commented that "you only have it for 60 years whether it’s a lease or occupation right; at the end of the 60 years you cannot pass it on to your children and it goes back to the family.

"Family decide what happens to it and if they want to, they can sell it to a foreigner and pocket the money from your labour."

Prime minister Henry Puna acknowledges that it’s a ‘huge, huge matter’ that his administration needs to deal with quickly.

"Whatever the implications, it affects all of our people and more importantly, it also affects the way we deal with our land."

The PM made assurances during yesterday’s press conference that his government would do whatever needed to be done to address the problem.

Puna said arrangements would begin immediately to start engaging with the Ministry of Justice and the legal profession because he wants a structured approach to addressing the issues and options for resolving them. The prime minister said he wants clear direction on the law involving occupation right changes.

He says people shouldn’t allow emotion to get in the way of a solution.

"It could be legislative or it could be policy. Let’s wait and see."

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