Today's pre-trial hearing for 13 Whakaari/White Island disaster defendants concludes

Laura James
Source: 1News

Most of the parties charged by WorkSafe over the Whakaari/White Island eruption won't enter pleas until August, it was revealed today.

A pre-trial hearing for the 10 organisations and three individuals facing prosecution has just finished in the Whakatāne District Court. 

Twenty-two people were killed after the offshore volcano erupted in December 2019.

The court today heard that the National Emergency Management Agency is the only party to have entered a plea so far.

Judge Evangelous Thomas said the agency has pleaded not guilty.

He opened the hearing this morning by saying, "We begin as we did last time by remembering and honouring those who lost their lives, by acknowledging those who continue to suffer, their families, their whānau, communities here and around the world, so deeply affected by this tragedy.

"Our thoughts are with them all," he added. "I extend greetings to those who are joining us for this hearing."

Due to the limited seats in the courtroom, the nearby Acacia House, a few hundred metres away, had been set up with a live stream as an overflow venue.

The Justice Ministry also made a live stream of the hearing available to the victims and families of victims based overseas.

Tangata Whenua held a mihi whakatau, a formal welcome, before proceeding's commenced this morning.

A number of defendants, counsel for defendants and court staff including Judge Thomas took part.

Ngāti Awa Kaumatua, Maanu Paul said, "This is a sad occasion, a momentous occasion.

"Our hearts and minds go out to the families of those who came from overseas to admire this wonder of the earth.

"We ask today that we take the hand of generosity and offer each other love and care as we go through this court procedure."

The welcome was acknowledged by Judge Thomas during the hearing.

"I acknowledge and thank Ngāti Awa for the very warm mihi whakatau this morning," he said.

The proceedings today were of an administrative nature, with the court hearing submissions on where a trial might be held, the dates of future hearings and discussion about the possibility of severance applications.

The 13 parties include GNS Science, White Island Tours and three members of the Buttle family, which owns the island.

The defendants weren't required to attend today.

A case review hearing has been penciled in for September, with pleas to be entered by late August.

The location is yet to be determined, with Judge Thomas telling the court that the location of each hearing will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

"The trial is some way off," he told the court. "We're yet to have a discussion about when the trial will be and I expect that discussion will be some way off as well."