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'Not an easy decision': Whakaari/White Island trial venue decided

Author
Open Justice,
Publish Date
Mon, 13 Jun 2022, 10:47am
The trial for the defendants charged by Worksafe in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island eruption is set to proceed at the Environment Court in Auckland. Photo / NZME
The trial for the defendants charged by Worksafe in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island eruption is set to proceed at the Environment Court in Auckland. Photo / NZME

'Not an easy decision': Whakaari/White Island trial venue decided

Author
Open Justice,
Publish Date
Mon, 13 Jun 2022, 10:47am

Not a single district courtroom in the country has the facilities to host the trial for those charged after the Whakaari/White Island eruption, a District Court Judge has found.

The trial for the 11 remaining defendants charged in relation to the deadly eruption will instead take place at the Environment Court in Auckland - 300km away from where the eruption took place.

District Court judge Evangelos Thomas announced his decision to lawyers and a full public gallery at Whakatāne District Court today, accepting in most circumstances, the trial should have been held there.

"Ordinarily, justice should be done in the community in which events occurred. This factor strongly supports Whakatāne," Judge Thomas said.

But other considerations, such as the large number of defendants, witnesses, members of the public, and both local and international media meant the courthouse was not suitable for the proceedings.

The Worksafe prosecutor in the case, Kirsty McDonald, has previously labelled the trial as "the most significant" to ever be held in the District Court and said it would likely attract significant international attention.

The discussion about where the trial should be held has been extensive in recent months and two reports on possible venues were penned by the Ministry of Justice to help the court decide.

The first report explored options including an Auckland hotel, the Vodafone Events Centre in Auckland and the Whakatāne courthouse.

One of the more controversial options floated in that report was the Ngāti Awa marae Te Mānuka Tūtahi in Whakatāne.

White Island Tours, one of the parties charged as part of the trial, is owned by the business arm of Ngāti Awa - leading to questions from McDonald about the neutrality of the venue.

A second report narrowed the possible trial venues to three; the Environment Court in Auckland, the Department of Internal Affairs offices in Auckland and the Te Mānuka Tūtahi marae in Whakatāne.

Judge Thomas said the majority of parties had advocated for an Auckland venue, with consensus among those supporting the Environment Court.

Others have remained in favour of a Whakatāne trial - which "would clearly be preferable if we can source an appropriate venue," Judge Thomas said.

"The only venue in Whakatāne is not a courthouse. That is not a reason in itself, but in this case, it is not a neutral venue.

"This potential option has already been a controversial choice for some."

In making his decision to host the trial in Auckland, Judge Thomas said the victims came above all other considerations.

"They need to feel, all of them, that once this is done, the court has done everything it can to deliver justice as appropriately as it can."

The December 2019 eruption, which took place while the island sat at Volcanic Alert Level 2, happened while 47 people were on the island.

Twenty-two people died in and after the eruption - the majority Australian and United States citizens, alongside two New Zealanders and a German national. Twenty-five people were injured.

- Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice