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Whakaari trial to be held in Auckland

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

By Ethan Griffiths Open Justice multimedia journalist, Bay of Plenty

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 that, in most circumstances, the trial should be 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, Kristy 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.

22 people died in the eruption, with a further 25 injured. The eruption saw an outpouring of grief from the Whakatāne community. Photo / NZME

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.

Originally, thirteen parties were charged by Worksafe in the months after the eruption. Two of those parties have since had their charges resolved.

The National Emergency Management Agency saw its charge dismissed last month, while tourism operator Inflite pled guilty to a single charge laid under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The company was in March sentenced to a fine of $227,500 and court costs of $40,000.

Emotion in city 'still clear' - mayor

Speaking to Open Justice, Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner said she understood the reasons behind the decision, but remained of the view it was disappointing for the people of the city who had lived through the trauma of the eruption.

"It is a shame. It means local people with local interests in the outcome and their supporters may have to travel, which is an additional burden."

Turner said two and a half years on, there is still a strong sense of pride in the community at the efforts of those during the eruption, but trauma and stress still existed.

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner says the events of December 9 still play on the minds of the city's residents, and it's disappointing the trial won't be held there. Photo / George Novak

She said she had been at a firefighters event last week and brought up the heroic efforts of first responders during the eruption.

"People are very proud of the way our responders did - but it was something that struck a chord with them in a way that the rest of my speech didn't.

"I don't know whether I'd call it raw - but it's certainly something there's quite a strong reaction to if it comes up conversationally."

Some concerns about the nature of the trial still existed locally too, Turner said.

"People were concerned about the fact that some of the people on trial were people who acted remarkably and heroically on the day of the event. People felt very defensive about the fact they are now on trial.

"We know there were people who quite literally put their own lives on the line to rescue others, so people feel extremely disturbed they are now facing a trial on their involvement on White Island."

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