Whakaari WorkSafe prosecution hearing in Whakatāne expected to draw crowds

By Charlotte Jones, Local Democracy Reporter

Intense community and media interest in the next Whakaari WorkSafe prosecution hearing is expected to see the Whakatāne District Court crammed to its limits – so much so the Ministry of Justice will be livestreaming the event to a second location in the town.

The 13 companies and individuals charged by WorkSafe over the deadly eruption will be appearing in the Whakatāne court next Thursday and Friday for an administrative hearing at which several matters could be discussed, including the venue for future hearings and any trial or trials. It is not known whether any pleas are likely to be entered.

The hearing follows an adjournment from the Auckland District Court in March to give the defendants time to consider WorkSafe’s case against them.

Judge Thomas said in his decision to adjourn to Whakatāne that it was important for hearings to proceed as much as possible in the community the events occurred.

Typically, hearings are held in the district a crime was allegedly committed. However, Whakaari is not included in the boundaries of any district or regional council and is under the authority of the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta.

Judge Thomas earlier said that victims and the Whakatāne, and wider community, should have the opportunity to have their views presented to him at next week’s hearing.

Local barrister and solicitor Roger Gowing was asked to accept this liaison role.

Gowing told Local Democracy Reporting yesterday that he could not comment on this.

Because Whakatāne’s courtroom is small and there is a lot of interest expected, the hearing will also be livestreamed to Acacia House in Louvain St – walking distance from the court.

Those watching the livestream at Acacia House are reminded that they must follow normal court protocol, cameras and recording devices should not be used, phones should be turned off, and they must follow the directions of court staff.

WorkSafe has charged Inflite Charters, ID Tours, Tauranga Tourism Services, White Island Tours, Whakaari Management and its directors James, Peter and Andrew Buttle, Kahu NZ, the National Emergency Management Agency, GNS Science, Volcanic Air Safaris and Aerius Ltd under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 over the tragic eruption which killed 22 people.

Two White Island Tours guides, Jake Milbank and Kelsey Waghorn, were seriously injured in the disaster. Fellow guides Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi lost their lives. Marshall-Inman’s body has never been recovered.

Charges against helicopter tour companies such as Kahu NZ have caused anger in the community. Its director, Mark Law, is one of the pilots who helped rescue people from Whakaari after the eruption. He flew five people to safety.

A petition against the charges garnered over 100,000 signatures.

WorkSafe has previously stated it did not investigate the rescue and recovery of victims after the eruption. Rather, investigations centred on the actions of the parties during everyday operations.

Alleged offending goes as far back as 2016.

Ministry of Justice group manager operations and service delivery group Bryce Findlay said during the Whakaari hearing the Whakatāne court would be operating as normal. The public counter would remain open, filing and Justice of the Peace services would continue as usual and other hearings would still go ahead.

Findlay said the hearing was open to the public but advised people arrived early to ensure they got a seat.

A mihi whakatau (formal speech of welcome) will take place at 8.15am. The hearing will start at 10am.

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