Whakaari White Island disaster: No trial location yet determined for 13 parties charged after eruption

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Whakaari White Island disaster: No trial location yet determined for 13 parties charged after eruption
Whakaari White Island disaster: No trial location yet determined for 13 parties charged after eruption

A venue for next year’s trial of multiple parties charged over the fatal eruption of Whakaari/White Island has still not been determined, with defence lawyers and the prosecution continuing to have differing views on where the trial should be held.

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A total of 13 parties were charged by Worksafe in the wake of the 2019 eruption, which killed 22 people and seriously injured a number of others.

A pre-trial hearing was held on Tuesday in front of Judge Evengelos Thomas, so a discussion could take place about the preferred location for a trial to take place, currently set down for July 2023.

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The trial, which was expected to last about four months, would see a number of both local and international witnesses present to the court, as well as families of those affected by the disaster.

The Ministry of Justice prepared a report on possible locations, listing a number of venues in Auckland and Tauranga that could be considered to host the trial.

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Those included venues such as the Tauranga Events Centre and Auckland’s Pullman Hotel. The majority of the locations suggested were not official courtrooms due to a variety of factors including capacity and availability.

Also floated as a possibility was Te Mānuka Tūtahi Marae in Whakatāne, owned by Ngati Awa, the iwi who was also the owner of one of the defendants, White Island Tours.

One of the key considerations for both counsel and the Judge was the number of victims families likely to be present throughout the trial, alongside a significant number of both local and international media.

Worksafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald QC told the court the Ministry’s report neglected the consideration of IT infrastructure for a possible venue, with a significant number of both victims and witnesses to be present via audio-visual link.

“I really question whether a virtual meeting room for 300 participants is anywhere near adequate,” McDonald said, saying live-streaming could be a better alternative.

McDonald submitted her preference for the trial was an existing New Zealand courtroom – one with proven IT capability.

Whakaari White Island disaster: No trial location yet determined for 13 parties charged after eruption

Kristy McDonald QC submitted that the best-suited venue for a trial is in a New Zealand courtroom. Photo / NZME

“It seems extraordinary to me and a rather sad indictment of matters that seemingly no court can be found in New Zealand to accommodate one of the most significant criminal offender trials that Your Honour is about to embark on.”

McDonald also pushed back on the suggestion that the Te Mānuka Tūtahi Marae be considered as a trial location, saying it would not be a neutral venue.

Richard Raymond QC, the lawyer representing White Island Tours Ltd, agreed with some of McDonald’s concerns surrounding a venue, but said ultimately, it was the court’s presence that brought the formality to the hearing, not the venue.

“It’s Your Honour which brings the dignity and solemnity and the formality to these proceedings.

“The venue will very shortly become irrelevant – every participant, those who are following in court or internationally, will recognise those features I’ve just described and the focus will be on ensuring a fair trial.”

Raymond also pushed back on McDonald’s concerns about the marae being used as a makeshift courtroom.

“To Ngāti Awa, it’s frankly offensive that this is being suggested. You can’t get a more solemn or formal venue than a marae.”

However, Raymond ultimately agreed that an official New Zealand courtroom would be best suited for the trial, should a courtroom be available.

Judge Thomas accepted there were a number of differing views on a trial venue and ordered the Ministry of Justice to again look at possible venues, with the court to reconvene to consider those venues at a later date.

Judge Thomas suggested a possibility could be opening and closing the trial from within a Whakatāne courtroom, while moving the meatier parts of the trial to a better-suited venue.

The eruption, which happened on December 9, 2019, killed 22 people – just two of which were New Zealand citizens. The majority of those killed were Australian or US citizens.

Worksafe eventually charged 13 parties with a total of 20 offences. Those charged are: the island’s owner Whakaari Management Ltd and its directors Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; GNS Science; the National Emergency Management Agency; White Island Tours Ltd; Volcanic Air Safaris Ltd; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Ltd; Inflite Charters Ltd; I D Tours New Zealand Ltd; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited.

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