The Scope and Significance of Māori Legal History

19 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2013 Last revised: 15 Mar 2015

See all articles by Carwyn Jones

Carwyn Jones

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2009


While legal history is a field that has developed considerably in Aotearoa in recent years, very little consideration has been given to the study of Māori legal history, either by historians or lawyers/legal academics. An exploration of what it is that comprises the scope of this field and the various sources of Māori legal history could assist in developing our understanding of the landscape of Māori history and the parameters of both Māori history and legal history in Aotearoa.

Many people would consider Māori legal history to be the study of the historical development of laws that relate to Māori. But a study of the historical context only of legislation and case law that affects Māori is in fact just a small part of this field. This approach has tended to derive from the twin assumptions that there is no distinct Māori legal system that has either operated historically or operates now. Once we recognise that both these assumptions are false, we can proceed on the basis that the field is primarily concerned with the historical development of the Māori legal system and therefore the sources students of Māori legal history must focus on are not only the historical context of cases and legislation, but the historical context of changes in the Māori legal system – what are the legal-historical significance of the Kotahitanga Parliaments or the establishment of the Kinigtanga? What changes in the way authority operates and behaviour is regulated in Māori society do movements like these represent?

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the regulation of behaviour in Māori society has, since 1840, to greater or lesser degrees, been governed by both the Māori legal system and the colonial legal system. Consequently, I argue that the study of Māori legal history must include both Māori sources and colonial legal sources. This approach can therefore develop our understanding of what constitutes both Māori history and New Zealand legal history.

Keywords: Indigenous peoples, Indigenous law, Indigenous legal history, Colonial Law, Bicultural Law

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K30

Suggested Citation

Jones, Carwyn, The Scope and Significance of Māori Legal History (2009). (2009) 3 Te Pouhere Korero pp. 45-62, Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 20/2014, Available at SSRN:

Carwyn Jones (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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