JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The Ngadju people of western Australia have launched a lawsuit against South African-listed bullion producer Gold Fields, claiming it is among the firms illegally digging on their land, the company said on Monday.
Gold Fields said it would defend itself against the Ngadju people's claim that 210 of the 250 mining permits held by its subsidiary St Ives Gold Mining Company in western Australia are invalid.
"Gold Fields is strongly of the view that the assertions made by the Ngadju People are unfounded and without merit," it said in a statement.
The court hearing will begin in March this year. A decision, which can be appealed by any of the parties, is not expected for between six and 12 months.
The lawsuit alleges that the Australian government broke the law when the permits were transferred from Western Mining Corporation to St Ives in 2001.
The Ngadju also say the lead respondent, the State of Western Australia, failed to follow the legal procedure - or "the right to negotiate" - in renewing Gold Fields' permits in 2007.
If the Ngadju are successful, they could ask the court to order Gold Fields to stop mining on the land or the two parties could enter into an indigenous land use agreement.
Shares in Gold Fields were down 0.7 percent at 38.82 rand by 1254 GMT, after falling as much as 6 percent shortly after the Johannesburg bourse opened.
Gold Fields is also being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and South African authorities for activities related to a deal with black investors and the granting of a mining licence for its South Deep operation.
Australia, which contributes about 40 percent Gold Fields' annual output, is an important growth area for the firm as it strives to diversify away from its South African domestic base, and an unfavourable outcome to the lawsuit could be highly damaging to the firm.
(Reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Louise Heavens)