Neither the Government nor Maori would own the nation's beaches under a proposal to settle the dispute over laws governing the foreshore and seabed.

The proposal is one of several on the table, the Government told the Iwi Leaders Forum at Waitangi.

It is understood Maori kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over an area - which would allow greater decision-making by tangata whenua - could also be provided for if the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act is repealed.

The act gave ownership to the Crown and denied Maori the chance to test their claims to the foreshore and seabed in court.

Repealing the legislation is the issue that brought the Maori Party into Parliament, and a degree of realism on both sides could see that happening this year, Prime Minister John Key has said.

Sources close to negotiations have said it would be a huge shift for the Crown to take the foreshore and seabed off its books, but this was a crucial starting point for a new law because it would emphasise "shared" interests.

"It's a Treaty partnership working in action without the [ownership] hassles around it," one source said. [Therefore] everyone's rights are protected."

How that would work in practice and how bureaucracy might increase if neither group had ownership were issues being worked through.

Auckland University environmental law expert Klaus Bosselmann said as long as the new law spelled out who controlled what activities, the proposal looked like a pragmatic solution that recognised Maori customary rights but retained access for all New Zealanders to beaches.

United Future leader Peter Dunne is part of the ministerial group working on the proposal. He has written about the foreshore and seabed this year, saying they should be viewed as "public domain".

Mr Dunne told the Herald his public-domain concept did capture a scenario where "no one owns it but we all own it and so therefore we all have an interest in it".

"It is a public space where we all have indivisible and inalienable rights."

He said it was important to remember that the "sky hadn't fallen in" since the 2004 act came into force.

Local authorities had continued to make decisions on road access, speed limits, fire bans and resource management. Maori had continued customary activities such as declaring rahui (bans) on shellfish gathering.

That set of circumstances would continue no matter what replaced the legislation.

Asked if it was likely that Maori would gain a larger say in decision-making relating to the foreshore and seabed, Mr Dunne said yes, but qualified his response by saying nothing was absolute.

"What's hopefully going to come out of all of this is there is much more involvement in decision-making by all people who have an interest."

Mr Key and Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson briefed the Iwi Leaders Forum last Friday as a prelude to Waitangi Day celebrations.

Te Runanga a Iwi o Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau was at the meeting and said tribal leaders were told that a repeal could also see the Crown negotiating with individual iwi about kaitiakitanga mechanisms.

Other options include allowing Maori to test their ownership claims in court - banned under present law.

Generally, leaders felt "enthusiasm" about the options, Mr Tau said, and there was "a strong sense of wanting to get the law repealed and a replacement in place without delay".

However, the forum wouldn't be the place where final decisions were made.

"I want to reiterate, the [Iwi Leadership Forum] do not negotiate a final outcome ... with the Crown but will engage and report back to their respective iwi. Hapu need to step up if they want to assert their views."