A funding crisis could stretch stage 2 of the Waitangi Tribunal's Te Paparahi o Te Raki inquiry into Northland Treaty settlement claims over the next four or five years, a judge has warned.
A Crown Forestry Rental Trust (CFRT) decision in December not to fund the first seven weeks of stage 2 hearings had created uncertainty over the hearings starting on March 18 as planned, tribunal presiding officer Judge Craig Coxhead said.
The first the tribunal and claimants knew of the decision was when they received a letter from CFRT chairwoman Angela Foulkes on December 21, he said in memorandum-directions issued on Wednesday.
"It is disappointing that without any prior indication and at a very late phase in our stage 2 hearing planning, we received this news," Judge Coxhead said.
"No reasons have been given for the trustees' decision. We are not sure whether the trustees' decision is due to a lack of CFRT funding or a case of wanting to withhold funds for other inquiries."
The letter from Ms Foulkes said CFRT trustees would reconsider the funding request this month, and Judge Coxhead understood that could be on February 12.
"We will continue to proceed on the basis the March hearing will go ahead as planned assuming the requested funding is approved," he said.
"If CFRT funding is not approved, there is an obvious need to delay the start of stage 2 hearings and re-plan.
"Whether the hearings commence in March will not be known until the CFRT trustees' decision in mid to late February, less than a month out from our intended start date."
With the possibility of CFRT funding not being approved, the hearing programme was likely to take longer.
"It is possible the process could last four or five years in such adverse conditions, with four hearings weeks a year," Judge Coxhead warned.
"It is also likely the hearings will take a different shape from what we are planning."
The judge asked the Crown to advise whether it had funding available for the stage 2 hearings if CFRT funding was not approved.
And he suggested the solution to ensuring there were resources for the hearings "rests at a political level".
The deed setting up the CFRT in 1989 provides for interest on invested rent from Crown forest land to be made available to help Maori prepare and negotiate claims before the Waitangi Tribunal which involve, or could involve, Crown forest land.