Long delays likely for NZ volcano trial

·2-min read

A reluctance to enter pleas means 18 months after the White Island-Whakaari's deadly blast, a trial over workplace safety breaches is still many months away.

The offshore volcano erupted in December 2019 while 47 people were visiting as part of tour groups, killing 22.

While a police-coronial investigation continues, the tragedy has reached court first as a workplace safety matter.

New Zealand's workplace safety watchdog Worksafe laid charges against 13 parties last December after a year-long $NZ5.5 million ($A5.1 million) investigation.

Only one party has issued a plea - the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which pleaded not guilty.

The other 12 parties have been given until August 24 to follow suit.

A fresh hearing into the safety failings took place on Thursday, with lawyers representing the 13 accused parties packing into the Whakatane District Court.

Counsel representing Worksafe, Kristy McDonald, urged the court to "move the matter along", and to ask defending parties to enter pleas.

Richard Raymond, representing White Island Tours, said defendants were overwhelmed by documents to assess.

Around 3000 documents, some more than 100 pages in length, have been disclosed, which has taken his team of eight lawyers three months to review.

With 1500 documents yet to come, Mr Raymond argued it was "not condusive to justice" to demand pleas.

Justice Evangelos Thomas relented, setting a plea deadline in 10 weeks, which will be followed by a case review hearing on September 13.

Parties also argued over where future hearings should be held.

Seven of the defendants are based in Auckland but this week's hearing was moved to Whakatane, 300km away, the city closest to the offshore volcano.

Justice Thomas appointed local lawyer Roger Gowing to consult with the community and victims on the matter.

Mr Gowing said families of Australian victims argued the case should be heard in Auckland for ease of access, but the overwhelming local sentiment was to hold the hearings in Whakatane.

Justice Thomas agreed with locals, but will review the decision before a possible trial.

Worksafe alleges 13 parties - 10 organisations and three people - were negligent in their duty of care to visitors to the island.

That includes tourism outlets Inflite Charters, ID Tours, Tauranga Tourism Services, White Island Tours, Kahu NZ, Volcanic Air Safaris and Aerius; as well as government agencies NEMA and GNS Science.

The three people to have been charged are the legal owners of the island; James, Peter and Andrew Buttle, as well as their ownership company Whakaari Management.

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