Pike decision 'firmly based on legal principles'

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 17:25 13/12/2013
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

Prime Minister John Key discusses the Pike River announcement.

John Key
PRIME MINISTER: John Key.
Minister of Labour Simon Bridges
Fairfax NZ
SIMON BRIDGES: "Proper legal principles were followed here".

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Prime Minister John Key says his hands are tied over the decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment yesterday dropped all 12 health and safety charges against Pike River Coal Ltd's former chief executive, admitting it had a poor chance of successfully prosecuting him.

At the same hearing in Christchurch District Court, it was announced there would be a $3.41 million payment to the families of the 29 men who died in the 2010 blast, and the two survivors.

"The first thing I'd say is our hearts go to those families, they've gone through an enormous amount, they'll be extremely disappointed I think at what took place yesterday," Key said.

"But on the other side of the coin, the regulator's independent. Those decisions aren't made by the Government  and the independent regulator has made the call that it's very unlikely a prosecution would be successful and that's essentially what the judge has also said.

"So at the end of the day, I think they will be hurting as a result of that decision. There's really fundamentally nothing I can do, it's quite inappropriate for me to step in front of the prosecution, a judge and an independent regulator and decide whether it would be successful."

Key said he was told last Sunday, that the regulator had decided to drop the charges against Whittall.

"I also thought that doesn't look terribly good, but on the other side of the coin, I guess the decision that the regulator has made and the judge has made, was the appropriate next step."

Labour Minister Simon Bridges offered his sympathies to the Pike River families, but stressed the decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall was not the result of a back-room deal.

Yesterday, Bridges refused to comment on the decision, but today told Fairfax Media he offered his sympathies to the families.

"Obviously I've got a huge amount of sympathy for them, and can understand where they're coming from," he said.

"But what I can give them is an assurance that there's been no politics involved in this, no deal of any kind.

"Instead, what it is, is a decision firmly based on legal principles."

Yesterday, opposition MPs along with Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said it was clear a back-room deal had been made.

Labour Party justice and labour spokesman Andrew Little said it should be left to the courts to decide if a person had broken the law, "not some back-room deal between lawyers".

West-Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor also said the settlement looked like a "stitch-up".

"The families have said they want justice more than money and this tragedy will have no end until justice is seen to be done," he said.

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Bridges denied yesterday's announcement left New Zealand's justice system a "laughing stock".

"I disagree with that," he said.

"It was a decision based on legal principles, and determined by the ministry after clear legal advice from the Crown Solicitor and the solicitor-general."

Bridges said he was advised of the decision only this week, after the decision had already been made.

"I had no involvement in it, and that's as it should be," the minister said.

"I think politicians shouldn't be involved in deciding whether or not to prosecute individuals."

The decision was made after assessing the level of evidence available and whether or not proceeding was in the public interest, Bridges said.

"In terms of the evidential test, the factors taken into account . . . included witnesses not being prepared to make themselves available, [and] contest between experts and other pre-trial issues.

"And then in terms of the public interest, the assessment was that it wasn't in the public interest to continue with a long, costly trial, with a low probability of success."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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