A Northland environmental group is taking three government departments to court over what it says are failures to enforce the law on swamp kauri exports.

The Forest Act 1949 prohibits the export of swamp kauri unless it has been made into a "finished product" - but it seems no one can agree on what a finished product is. The Northland Environmental Protection Society (NEPS) is challenging decisions by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and Customs to allow 25 shipments of swamp kauri out of the country over the past five years.

Eight of those shipments were of table tops which NEPS claims were lightly finished slabs intended for further processing overseas. Other shipments were of carvings, temple poles, "timber shorts" and stump logs. Stumps may be exported but not logs. The act does not define a stump log.

NEPS chairwoman Fiona Furrell said the group wanted to challenge the way MPI was interpreting the Forests Act, and in particular how it defined a finished product.

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Earlier this month Auditor-General Lyn Provost rejected NEPS' call for an inquiry into the swamp kauri trade - but backed the group's claims that the milling statements system, which is supposed to make sure logs are not extracted from protected wetlands, was open to abuse because there were minimal checks or inspections.

Ms Provost said those problems had already been addressed by improvements to MPI's approval system, including inspections of every extraction site and extra staff on the ground in Northland.

As for the definition of a finished product, however, Ms Provost said that was a matter for the courts to decide.

Ms Furrell said NEPS had been preparing its case on exactly that issue for several months, by chance lodging its application for an urgent judicial review just as Ms Provost released her findings.

A further hearing was held in the High Court at Auckland on Friday to settle matters around timeframes and disclosure of evidence.

Other examples cited in the group's application include three logs, one of which weighed 6 tonnes, which had been lightly carved so they could be exported as Maori carvings and temple poles.

NEPS also claims the Ministry of Culture and Heritage should treat swamp kauri as a protected New Zealand object, which would require export approval under the Protected Objects Act 1975.

Ms Furrell said the group was lucky to have lawyers willing to work pro bono (without charge). A spokesman said MPI could not comment while the case was before the courts.

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MPI guidelines state that a finished product "must be manufactured into its final shape and form and is ready to be installed or used for its intended purpose without the need for any further machining or other modification". Finished products could be a complete item or a component of an item but did not include dressed or rough-sawn timber, mouldings, panelling, furniture blanks or similar items.