Whakaari prosecutions 'fundamental for closure' - law expert

4:03 pm on 1 December 2020

New Zealand has a lax attitude towards health and safety and the Whakaari/White Island prosecutions are a wakeup call, a law expert says.

A volcano with a large plume of ash.

Whakaari/White Island during the eruption. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

The volcanic Whakaari / White Island in Bay of Plenty erupted on 9 December last year leading to the deaths of 22 people, mostly tourists.

WorkSafe has completed its investigation into the eruption and announced yesterday it was filing action against 10 organisations and three individuals.

Auckland University research fellow and retired law professor Bill Hodge said New Zealand has a "she'll be right" attitude, and the WorkSafe investigation was welcome.

"New Zealanders [are known] for a pretty casual approach: 'don't worry about it mate, don't sweat the small stuff', that sort of attitude.

"So I think it is a welcome wake-up call ... we need this, and it's good."

He said ACC prevented people from suing for damages in New Zealand and this made court proceedings the only chance for those who had lost loved ones to get resolution.

"The significance of [the WorkSafe prosecution] cannot be overstated, it is fundamental to closure ... for the families, whether they are tourists or locals, whether they are employees or visitors, to have some sort of transparency in the court.

"That's what this is about."

He expected the prosecutions would likely take at least a year but said they would help make New Zealand a safer place.

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner and Whakatāne District Council have refused to talk to RNZ, saying they would not do any interviews on the topic until after a remembrance service which is planned for 8 December.

Local iwi have also declined to comment.

The district council has told a Local Democracy Reporter it is not part of the group charged by WorkSafe.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council confirmed it was not one of the parties being charged by WorkSafe, and said its Civil Defence team were not facing charges either.

Rita Yousef - the Australian-based lawyer for the families, who is pursuing a legal case against cruise company Royal Caribbean, told RNZ she was not in a position to comment.

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