12 Dec 2013

Charges against former Pike boss dropped

9:50 pm on 12 December 2013

The former chief executive of the Pike River Coal mine will no longer face charges of breaching health and safety rules over a mining disaster after the Crown decided it was unlikely that a prosecution would succeed.

Peter Whittall.

Peter Whittall. Photo: AFP

Peter Whittall was the only individual charged and faced 12 counts brought by the former Department of Labour over his role in a series of explosions at the West Coast mine that began on 19 November 2010.

The decision by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment not to proceed with the prosecution followed an approach by Mr Whittall's lawyers, pointing out major problems with the case including the lack of mining expertise held by its investigations manager.

Crown lawyer Mark Zarifeh told Christchurch District Court on Thursday that much of the evidence gathered by the department would have been inadmissible, due to many witnesses being overseas and not making themselves available to be cross-examined. Because they are overseas, it would not have been possible to require them to attend the trial.

Mr Zarifeh said a trial lasting 16 to 20 weeks in Wellington would also be very expensive and not the best use of limited resources.

Mr Whittall and other directors and officers of Pike River Coal have offered to make a voluntary compensation payment of $3.4 million to the families of the victims and two men who survived the blast, about $110,000 each. It is money from the directors' own insurance that would have been spent on a defence.

The lawyer representing Pike River families told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme the chances of getting the decision not to prosecute Mr Whittall reversed are next to zero. Nick Davidson says he finds it appalling that no-one has been found responsible and the case has disintegrated over the passage of time.

"It sounds as though they've reached a view that with witnesses falling away, refusing to assist, not coming back to New Zealand - it's just been too hard to get the case home for the kind of outcome which they originally obviously contemplated."

Stacey Shortall, a lawyer representing management at Pike River Coal, said there was no backroom dealing and there would probably never have been a successful prosecution against her client anyway.

"We identified in court flaws in the investigative process and the way in which documents were dealt with during the discovery part. The prosecution was fundamentally deficient and flawed - and that is what led to the dismissal of the charges."

Families of Pike River victims outside the courthouse, including spokesperson Bernie Monk in grey jacket.

Families of Pike River victims outside the courthouse, including spokesperson Bernie Monk in grey jacket. Photo: RNZ

Compensation 'blood money'

Outside court, Carol Rose and Bernie Monk, who lost their sons in the explosion, said on Thursday they had no wish to meet with Peter Whittall and described the compensation offer as "blood money".

Ms Rose lost her son Stuart Mudge and said her wish to see somebody held accountable has never been about money. She believed Mr Whittall has bought his way out of facing justice over what had occurred at the mine.

"This feels like blood money, this feels like a backroom deal, there's no justice here. As far as I'm concerned, this is a PR exercise, this is a make Peter Whittall feel good and look good in the public eye - and we won't be a party to that."

Ms Rose said while she would love to decline the offer, many people have been left without their main bread-winner and could use the money. "It's a tall order because its not for me to do that. I've got an eight-year-old granddaughter who is growing up without a father ... If I was going to get any of it, I would refuse it - but it's not my place to do that."

Bernie Monk said three years on, the time for meetings has passed. "I'll never meet Peter Whittall. He's walked away from us at a family meeting one day and said that ... he didn't want to have any more meetings with the families. And now he expects us to come running to him when he snaps his fingers - well, that's not going to happen from Bernie Monk."

Mr Monk, who lost his son Michael, said he was shocked at the botched job the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had done. He remained hopeful that police would eventually lay criminal charges. "We just didn't realise that so much has been missed. We've always said that this disaster made a laughing stock of mining and the justice system now is in the same place."

Ministry 'put reputation before justice'

The Council of Trade Unions and the Labour Party have accused the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment of putting its reputation before justice.

CTU president Helen Kelly.

CTU president Helen Kelly. Photo: SUPPLIED

The union said on Thursday it is considering seeking a judicial review of the decision not to prosecute Peter Whittall.

CTU president Helen Kelly is not happy a deal has been done, saying it confirms that if people have money, they can get off scot-free.

Ms Kelly said it is wrong for the ministry to decide to drop the charges when it is so heavily implicated in the disaster, and it is clear that Mr Whittall's defence was going to include serious criticism of the role of the Department of Labour.

The Labour Party's West Coast-Tasman MP, Damien O'Connor, said the ministry's role would have been exposed in the court case and that is why it is not going ahead.

Damien O'Connor.

Damien O'Connor. Photo: SUPPLIED

Mr O'Connor said people will be appalled that, once again, the families have been denied justice. He also raised questions about why the ministry was the one to decide to withdraw the charges.

"The justice has been compromised by people not being prepared to come and provide information, by the fact that the department that was supposed to oversee the safety in the mine is now asked whether it should or shouldn't prosecute. So the whole system is actually not right - it needs major overhaul and I think we need to look at corporate liability laws."

Green Party List MP Kevin Hague, who lives on the West Coast, said it is outrageous that the charges have been dropped and troubling that the ministry took into account an offer to pay compensation to the families.

"This failure to prosecute Whittall now is an absolute insult to the families of those 29 men and to their memory. And what those families needed was for someone to be held responsible - and nobody has been."