The Crown has taken the unprecedented step of helping fund Northland Maori claimants to prevent a funding crisis holding up Treaty of Waitangi settlement hearings, citing "extraordinary circumstances".
A Crown Forestry Rental Trust (CFRT) decision in December not to fund the first seven weeks of stage 2 of the Waitangi Tribunal's Te Paparahi o Te Raki inquiry into Northland Treaty settlement claims created uncertainty over the hearings starting on March 18 as planned.
Tribunal presiding officer Judge Craig Coxhead said the decision could stretch the hearings over the next four or five years.
But yesterday the Crown announced that it would "make an exception" and fund the first two weeks of the hearings on a one-off basis.
In a letter to the tribunal and claimants, the Crown's lawyers said given the significant effort put into preparing for the hearings by tribunal staff, claimants, counsel and technical witnesses, the Crown was very concerned that the hearings proceed as scheduled.
"It is not Crown policy for the Office of Treaty Settlements to make a contribution to claimant participation in the Waitangi Tribunal process," the letter said.
"In this case, however, because the CFRT decision was communicated just a month before the [stage 2 inquiry] start date, the Crown has decided to make an exception.
"Due to the extraordinary circumstances, cabinet has approved [funding] on a strictly one-off basis, for a Crown contribution to claimant preparation in the initial hearings."
The interim measure was to ensure that the hearing timetable would not be delayed and to allow time for the CRFT and tribunal to work on future arrangements.
"This is a one-off, interim measure under exceptional circumstances. The Crown does not commit to contributing to claimant participation ... beyond these two hearing weeks," the lawyers said.
The Office of Treaty Settlements is working out a process for administering the funds to claimants and an update would be sent out on February 28.
It is understood claimants require up to $400,000 to cover hosting and other costs they face for the first seven weeks of the 21-week stage 2 hearings programme.
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 tribunal which involve, or could involve, Crown forest land.