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THE history of English Legislation can furnish but few precedents of British subjects having been deprived of their property by an Act of the Legislature; and never but in cases of rebellion or treason.
The several Ordinances of the New Zealand Legislature, dealing with what are called "Claims to Land," are, in this respect, unprecedented. They profess to deprive a class of British subjects of their lands, because those Lands are too extensive, or too valuable, for a subject to possess.
The several Acts of Parliament which gave power to the New Zealand Legislatures to make laws, expressly required that the laws made by those Legislatures should "not be repugnant to the laws of England." The Ordinances and Laws of New Zealand affecting Titles to Land contain provisions which are a direct violation of Magna Charta and The Bill of Rights--the fundamental laws of the realm of England which protect the private rights of citizens in their landed estates.
The Instructions under the Royal Sign Manual of 1840 designate any "such Ordinance" as shall be repugnant to the Laws of England as a "pretended Ordinance," which "shall be absolutely null and void to all intents and purposes." Previous Ordinances were made by Governors with Councils of their own
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nomination. "The Old Land Claims Final Settlement Bill of 1856" 1 is passed by an Assembly consisting of an elected House of Representatives and a nominated Council. Its history is this:-- The Governor, in his opening address to the Assembly on the 15th April, said, "I trust you will lose no time in authorising the formation of a Commission with full powers to settle the many vexed questions connected with Land Claims, and for the quieting of disputed titles." On the 9th May Mr. Sewell moved "that a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report as to the nature and extent of outstanding land claims, and the best means of finally disposing of the same."
The Committee met on the 27th, 28th, and 29th of May, and on the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 9th of June, and examined witnesses. The evidence given by these witnesses was not printed for the information of members of the Legislature, nor is it alluded to in the report of the Committee. Various petitions were also referred to the Committee, to which the Report makes no allusion, except by stating in a "Postscript," "that the claims of all such petitioners should be heard and decided on by the Commissioners now recommended in accordance with the provisions of the Act proposed to be passed on the general subject," while some of those provisions so restrict the powers of the Commissioners as to make it impossible for them to do justice to the petitioners.
The Report of the Committee professes to give the "Past History and Present State of the Land Claims;" but with what impartiality, may be judged from the following fact, namely, that while it states that "Her Majesty, by Royal Instructions of 14th August, 1839, declared that no titles to land not proceeding from or recognized by Her Majesty should be
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recognized," it omits the sentence which immediately follows that declaration:-- "You will, however, at the same time take care to dispel any apprehensions which may be created in the minds of the settlers, that it is intended to dispossess the owners of any property which has been acquired on equitable conditions, and which is not upon a scale which must be prejudicial to the latent interests of the community." 2
Her Majesty, not acknowledging titles as valid before a "Legislative Commission" should investigate and ascertain what are the lands in New Zealand held by British subjects under grants from the Natives, how far such grants were lawfully acquired," 3 &c, only intimated, and could only lawfully intimate, that Her Majesty would not maintain titles thus acquired, without a previous inquiry into their justice.
Mr. Alfred Domett, who signs the Report as Chairman of the Committee, was present at every meeting of the Committee excepting on the 28th and 29th of May, on which days evidence was given that land purchases were made under the direct sanction and assistance of the British Government before New Zealand became a British Dependency, providing that even if the titles thus acquired were technically void in law, they would still be binding on the good faith of the British Government.
This evidence was furnished by the production of official despatches from the Governor of New South Wales to the British Resident at New Zealand. Evidence was at the same time given from Parliamentary Reports and Blue Books, that the local Government was not authorized by Her Majesty's Government in
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"declaring such titles absolutely null and void;" but, on the contrary, that Her Majesty's Government contemplated "that application to Parliament may hereafter become necessary to provide for the investment in the Crown of any proprietary rights which may be thus acquired by private parties, with such equitable compensations to them as, under all the circumstances of the case, may appear to be expedient." 4 Reference was also made to despatches from three successive Secretaries of State, all shewing that their views did not accord with those of the local Government; but, on the contrary, that it might be fairly inferred that they considered titles acquired from the Natives to be valid in law, unless they should be set aside by Act of Parliament.
All this evidence, a knowledge of which was essentially necessary to have enabled the Legislature to attain to a right judgment respecting the questions upon which they were called upon to legislate, was absolutely ignored by the Committee. So far from its having been printed for the information of members of both Houses, the Report does not even mention that such evidence had been received.
Under such circumstances, the following Address was by permission, granted on petition to the House of Representatives, delivered at the table of the House.