CTU seeking to overturn dropping of Whittall charges

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014
Pike
FORMER PIKE LEADER: Peter Whittall

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The Council of Trade Unions is taking legal action to overturn a controversial decision to ditch charges against former Pike River coalmine chief executive Peter Whittall.

Last month Judge Jane Farish dismissed all 12 health and safety charges against Whittall over the November 2010 blast which killed 29 men at the West Coast underground mine.

"We believe it was not a proper decision to make," CTU president Helen Kelly said yesterday.

At the time, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment told the Christchurch District Court its prosecution would fail, mainly because 14 witnesses refused to return to New Zealand to give evidence against Whittall and could not be forced.

Former Pike River Coal Ltd directors and officers offered to pay $3.4 million to families of the 29 men and two blast survivors if the trial was ditched. This was insurance money originally planned to cover the cost of Whittall's expected 12 to 16-week trial.

Kelly said the CTU filed preliminary court proceedings in the Wellington District Court on December 24 and again last week on behalf of two Pike families, requesting to view all evidence that Judge Farish used to make her ruling.

It would seek a judicial review if it believed there was insufficient evidence for the judge to decide a prosecution would fail or that unfair weight was put on the reparation payment.

At the time, Judge Farish emphasised the money was a side issue.

"Now some of you I know will say and think and believe that this is Mr Whittall buying his way out of prosecution, but I can tell you it is not."

She said it was not in the community's best interests to proceed with a trial because of its likely time and length, plus resources needed for fineable-only charges with a "very small chance" of successful prosecution.

Pike families reacted angrily when Whittall's charges were dropped.

Bernie Monk, spokesman for most Pike families, said yesterday he welcomed the CTU's legal action because the families still wanted accountability for the disaster.

However, he said the families were focused on re-entering the mine's tunnel, which would enable hard evidence to be gathered for any future prosecution.

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