Waitara battle costs $2.05m

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 05:00 26/06/2014

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The legal battle with Waitara leaseholders has cost the New Plymouth District Council more than $2 million.

Ratepayers have coughed up $1.31m of that bill.

Yesterday the council revealed that since 2004 it had spent $2.05m on legal fees relating to the Waitara endowment land.

The money had all been paid to Wellington law firm Simpson Grierson, with $735,139 being reimbursed by the council's insurers. Chief executive Barbara McKerrow said the costs had mounted as the council was forced to defend itself in court when the Waitara Leaseholders Association launched legal action in 2004.

"Once challenged, the council had no choice but to respond," she said. "And unfortunately that litigation continued."

The council was always sure it was in the right and would win out in the end, McKerrow said.

The leaseholders would have also spent a significant amount on legal fees during the eight-year battle, she said.

"Which is unfortunate because in the end it changed nothing.

"Their litigation was completely within their rights but, yes, it did mean ratepayers had to fund this."

The council could potentially be reimbursed for the $1.31m of ratepayers' money if the land was sold without any statutory regulation, she said.

Mayor Andrew Judd said the sad part of the whole affair was the Te Atiawa settlement had not solved any of the contentious issues. "This was an expensive exercise for us to all be back at square one. It's a cost we have all had to bear," he said.

"But it was something the leaseholders thought they had to clarify legally, which they are entitled to do."

The $2m legal bill highlighted the fact the council and ratepayers had to have better communication, he said.

"Something like this cannot happen again."

McKerrow said she was not aware of any future litigation with the Waitara leaseholders but more legal costs would be incurred if the council pushed forward with taking a local bill to Parliament.

In 2004, after the council made a controversial decision to offer the 770-odd properties to the Crown to be included in Te Atiawa's Treaty settlement, the Waitara association filed proceedings in the High Court to try to reverse the decision. The association won its first two hearings but after these initial successes the leaseholders ultimately failed in their attempts to obtain legal redress as the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision.

Also, in 2006, 155 individual claims were made against the council but six test cases were dismissed by the High Court in a summary judgment.

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After a series of court cases, the litigation ended in August 2011, with all rulings in favour of the council.

- Taranaki Daily News

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