24 Nov 2017

Lack of legal avenues shows re-entry 'vital' - Little

8:23 am on 24 November 2017

The minister responsible for Pike River re-entry says further legal action against the mine's boss is unlikely.

Andrew Little in the Morning Report Auckland studio, 18 July 2017.

Pike River Minister Andrew Little said the decision to drop the charges against the mine boss was a "crooked deal". Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the health and safety regulator's withdrawal of its prosecution of boss Peter Whittall in exchange for more than $3 million in payments to the 29 victims' families was unlawful.

WorkSafe chief executive Nicole Rosie said the Supreme Court ruling "clarifies the approach the regulator should have taken, and will take in future".

"I certainly would like to acknowledge the families and pay tribute to them and to their commitment because they have certainly helped change the health and safety landscape for the better.

However, Ms Rosie said while WorkSafe took responsibility for the decision of its predecessor - the Department of Labour - it was not to blame.

"Our understanding at this stage is there isn't actually any further steps but we will take the time to reflect and consider that."

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The Pike River mine Photo: AFP

Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry and Justice Minister Andrew Little told Morning Report there were few legal avenues left for the grieving Pike River families.

He said that because the Department of Labour produced no evidence against Mr Whittall and the charges were dismissed it was effectively an acquittal, so he could not be recharged.

Police at the time declined to charge Mr Whittall under the Crimes Act, and any civil suit - as a personal injury case - which would be prevented by ACC legislation, he said.

"I think that's why people might understand now why the Pike River re-entry project is so vital and so important in terms of the families' pursuit of justice," Mr Little said.

"We have a chance to get in there and get other evidence that tells a more accurate story or a different story, and is another chance to hold people to account, then that's why we must do that."

Mr Little said government agencies at the time were following Crown Law office guidelines that sought to minimise any prosecutions being taken, and these should be reviewed.

The decision to drop the charges was a "crooked deal" and he was "gobsmacked" when he heard about it, Mr Little said.

"It was the wrong thing to do."

'You accept responsibility, then you take the blame as well'

09082016. Photo Rebekah Parsons-King. Pike River families want mine's CEO to face charges. L-R Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse.

Anna Osborne, left, and Sonya Rockhouse brought the case against WorkSafe to the Supreme Court. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Sonya Rockhouse and Anne Osborne brought the case to the court and Ms Rockhouse said there were individuals who should be held accountable for decisions made before and after Pike River.

"You accept responsibility, then you take the blame as well."

Ms Rockhouse said WorkSafe fought the families through the courts for four years to defend its decision, and it should not have fallen to the families to do the government's job.

She said Pike River families were particularly angry to learn during the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Pike River that the head of health and safety at the Labour Department at the time, Lesley Haines, had told staff to "be seen to be doing something but in fact do nothing".

Ms Haines has since moved on and neither she nor Mr Whittall could be reached for comment last night.

Sonya Rockhouse's 21 year old son Ben was killed in the Pike River Mine on 19 November 2010. Her elder son Daniel was one of two survivors.

Sonya Rockhouse's 21 year old son Ben was killed in the Pike River Mine on 19 November 2010. Her elder son Daniel was one of two survivors. Photo: RNZ

Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff said the Supreme Court decision meant other families were protected from dangerous employers buying their way out of prosecution.

"To put this decision in context, one of New Zealand's largest government departments has been found to have acted illegally in pursuing health and safety charges they had good evidence for, in return for money that was already due to these families as compensation," he said.

"While Mr Whittall may have escaped a robust court process because of this despicable deal he struck with WorkSafe (then the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), today's ruling means this will never happen in New Zealand again."

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