WELLINGTON - New Zealand's courts were facing criticism Friday after the son of the Maori king escaped conviction on theft and drink driving charges because it could jeopardise his chances of inheriting the title.
Korotangi Paki, 19, pleaded guilty to the charges but a judge discharged him without conviction on Thursday, saying he needed an "unblemished" record if he was to succeed his father, King Tuheitia.
Critics said the decision amounted to special treatment for the young royal and other indigenous New Zealanders were not treated so leniently by the court system.
"It's time, perhaps, that judges come back to this planet and recognise that their job is to apply justice equally to everybody," former Maori affairs minister Dover Samuels, who has an indigenous background, told commercial radio.
Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge said the courts should not be making decisions based on how they could impact on succession planning.
"That is up to the Maori authorities in question, not a matter of New Zealand law and to that extent is one law for common people and another law for royalty," Hodge told Fairfax Media.
"That is not equal opportunity and it is not democratic." Maori make up about 15 per cent of New Zealand's population but are over-represented in the justice system, comprising more than 50 per cent of the prison population.
Tukuroirangi Morgan, a spokesman for the Maori king, welcomed the decision and said the young royal's high profile because of his family meant he would have to bear the shame of his actions for the rest of his life.
"People get sent to jail and can then forget about it, shame in the Maori world is an onerous and serious consequence that one has to carry, that's inescapable," he told Radio New Zealand.
King Tuheitia, who worked as a truck driver before his coronation in 2006, is descended from the first Maori king Potatau Te Wherowhero.
The role was created in 1858 by various North Island tribes which wanted a single figure to represent them in the way that Britain's Queen Victoria was a rallying figurehead for New Zealand's white settlers.
The position does not have any constitutional status or legal powers in New Zealand but carries huge symbolic importance for many Maori.
Tuheitia created headlines earlier this year when he refused to meet Britain's Prince William during his tour of New Zealand.
His office said the 90 minutes that tour organisers had allotted for the face-to-face visit was insufficient, arguing the Maori king was "not a carnival act" for visiting dignitaries.