Trial move annoys Pike River families

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 18/06/2013
Peter Whittall
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
HOSTILE COMMUNITY: Peter Whittall.

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Pike River families are "brassed off" a judge has agreed to shift the upcoming trial of the coalmine's former boss, Peter Whittall, from Greymouth to Wellington.

Judge Jane Farish released her written decision yesterday on Whittall's request to move his trial over alleged health and safety failures relating to the November 2010 blast at the underground West Coast mine that killed 29 men.

"I am satisfied it is in the interests of justice to transfer these proceedings to Wellington given the complexity and length of the trial together with Mr Whittall's personal position."

The trial was predicted to take 12 to 16 weeks and the case had about 600,000 disclosure documents, including one document containing 20,000 emails, she said.

Such issues would have "significantly compromised" Whittall's ability to defend himself in Greymouth, coupled with travel difficulties.

"I am satisfied that the public interests can be met by the proceedings being streamed live from Wellington," she said.

Bernie Monk, spokesman for most Pike families, said yesterday many of the dead men's families were unhappy they would have to watch the court case from afar.

"From our point of view, to look people in the eye and getting the guts of what they're saying and their body language will never be the same as watching it on TV.

"Everyone is brassed off to be honest," said Monk, whose son Michael, 23, was killed in the blast.

Whittall's lawyers had previously claimed hostility from Greymouth's community, plus administrative and travel problems would stop him getting a fair trial in Greymouth.

One of his lawyers, Stuart Grieve, QC, said at a hearing in April it could be "physically and emotionally debilitating" for Wellington-based Whittall to spend three or four months away from family and support.

Whittall, Pike's chief executive for less than seven weeks when the mine exploded but its mine manager since 2005, has denied all 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The former Labour Department, now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, alleged he failed to protect workers from harm relating to methane, strata, and ventilation management, and mitigating explosion risk and impact.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of $250,000.

The ministry's lawyer, Brent Stanaway, QC, told the Greymouth District Court in April the 29 men's families had a right to have the case heard in their own community.

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Public interest in holding the trial in Greymouth outweighed "economics and convenience" for Whittall's legal team, Stanaway said.

- The Press

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