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Caveats to reach backwards in time?

Stafford v Accident Compensation Corporation explores the limits to proprietary claims that will support a caveat.

The facts of the matter are complex.  However, the key points are as follows:

  • the claim is founded on the Supreme Court decision Proprietors of Wakatū v Attorney-General, which is summarised as follows in Stafford:

[5] In 1839, William Wakefield agreed to purchase for the New Zealand Company (the Company) a vast area of land in the lower North Island and upper South Island together comprising some 20 million acres.7 The purchase was agreed to by the customary owners on the basis that one tenth of the land would be reserved to them (the tenths). The Company subsequently offered allotments to settlers, each comprising a one-acre town lot, a 50-acre suburban lot and a 150-acre rural lot.

[6] Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and the Land Claims Ordinance 1841, all pre-Treaty sales were declared null and void unless allowed by the Crown. This would be dependent on commissioners confirming the purchases had been made on equitable terms. Only upon receiving such confirmation would native title be cleared, enabling the land to pass to the Crown.

[7] In 1845, William Spain, who had been appointed commissioner to investigate the 1839 purchases, reported that the purchase of land in the Nelson districts had been on equitable terms given the tenths reserves to be set aside for the customary owners and the additional payments made to them. He recommended that the Company be granted 151,000 acres of land in the districts of Wakatū (Nelson) (11,000 acres already surveyed), Waimea (38,000 acres already surveyed), Moutere (15,000 acres already surveyed), Motueka (42,000 acres partly surveyed) and Massacre Bay (Golden Bay) (45,000 acres partly surveyed). However, all pā, urupā and cultivations (occupied lands) were to be excluded from the purchase. This recommendation became known as the Spain award and was issued under the Land Claims Ordinance on 31 March 1845

[8] The tenths reserves, comprising a total of 15,100 acres, included 100 one-acre town sections at Wakatū and 100 50-acre suburban sections at Moutere and Motueka. These sections had been surveyed and selected by August 1842, prior to the issuance of the Spain award in 1845. The remaining tenths reserves, the larger rural reserves, had not been fully surveyed and selected at that stage. All occupied lands were to be excluded, with title to this land remaining with the relevant customary owners.

  • Mr Stafford who is kaumātua of Ngāti Rārua and Ngāti Tama and a descendent of the Māori customary owners of the land successfully claimed that the Crown had breached fiduciary obligations.  The matter is on-going.
  • Relevantly for the current matter, Mr Stafford sought to sustain caveats on land acquired by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) for investment purposes.
  • Mr Stafford’s substantive claim is against the Crown not ACC.  There was no suggestion that ACC breached any fiduciary obligations to the customary owners.  Related decisions focused on ministerial oversight and what that might mean in the overall conduct of matters
  • Significantly, to sustain the caveat as noted at [148] “Mr Stafford had to show that it was reasonably arguable both that he has a proprietary interest in the ACC property by virtue of a trust and that the interest “derived from the registered proprietor.””
  • The decision of the majority of the court was that any interest Mr Stafford may have in the ACC land was not derived from ACC as the registered proprietor – and so the caveat could not be sustained.  Importantly, this does not mean that there are no rights to protect, but that a caveat cannot be sustained on land owned by ACC.
  • The minority decision (Williams J) was that it was reasonably arguable that as ACC holds the land in question as an agent of the Crown, ACC can be subject to fiduciary obligations owed the Crown through the relevant ministers, notwithstanding that the relevant rights accrued before ACC came into existence.

As the decision was a majority decision, it may be that there is room for further exploration of the parameters of rights that might support a caveat.

Note that the judgment indicates that the decision will be appealed.


  • Stafford v Accident Compensation Corporation [2020] NZCA 164
  • Proprietors of Wakatū v Attorney-General [2017] NZSC 17


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