The judge leading the trial into the Whakaari-White Island tragedy is considering conducting proceedings at Te Mānuka Tūtahi marae in Whakatane.
The trial for the 13 organisations and individuals facing charges over health and safety failings is scheduled to begin July next year, but presiding Judge Evengelos Thomas has asked the Ministry of Justice to look beyond the nation’s courtrooms for a venue that can support the large number of defendants and victim families expected to attend.
A report delivered to the judge by the ministry tables venues including Auckland’s Pullman Hotel and the Tauranga Events Centre for the trial, which is set down for four months.
Te Mānuka Tūtahi marae is one of the only locations with capacity to facilitate proceedings in Whakatane, but Worksafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald QC pushed back against the suggestion as Ngati Awa had taken a shareholding in one of the defendants (White Island Tours) before the eruption.
McDonald also opposed other venues saying her preference was an existing New Zealand courtroom with IT capabilities and related Ministry of Justice infrastructure.
"It seems extraordinary to me and a rather sad indictment of matters that seemingly no court can be found in New Zealand to accommodate one of the most significant criminal offender trials that Your Honour is about to embark on," McDonald said.
Richard Raymond QC, representing White Island Tours, agreed with some of McDonald's concerns but said ultimately the building was less consequential than the proceedings themselves.
"It's Your Honour who brings the dignity and solemnity and the formality to these proceedings.
"The venue will very shortly become irrelevant - every participant, those who are following in court or internationally, will recognise those features I've just described and the focus will be on ensuring a fair trial."
Judge Thomas has asked the Ministry of Justice to canvas additional venues and consider a plan to open and close proceedings in a Whakatane courtroom, with the bulk of the trial taking place in a more suitable venue.