Editorial: This time it's impersonal

Last updated 05:00 13/12/2013

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OPINION: The case against Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall was weak.

His defence said so.

The prosecutors said so.

The judge said so.

They should know. But not only has the decision to drop the 12 charges laid against Whittall nauseated and incensed the families of the 29 dead men, the fact that they are now being proffered $3.41 million, or $110,000 each, has raised the spectre of a backroom "blood money" tradeoff.

Attempts to put a halo on that payment by explaining it's simply taking the cost of defending the charges and diverting it to the families are subverted by the sour realisation that this money still comes from insurers covering the company's directors and officers for legal liabilities.

The insurance industry is not beloved, but neither is it the target of the Pike River families' reproach.

Judge Jane Farish's assertion that the dropping of the charges and the making of the payment were two separate events was soon looking somewhat forlorn.

Actually the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment did acknowledge the payment among its reasons for abandoning the prosecution, alongside the fact that Whittall was facing fines only, was charged as a secondary party, and the trial was going to be hugely expensive and a drain on resources.

It was a profoundly unsatisfying decision.

However, it was a practical one, in the absence of any evidence that the acknowledged weakness of the case was either untrue, or true for dodgy reasons.

Inevitably, some will suspect that this was a half-hearted prosecution to begin with. Or at least a weary one.

It comes after an epic royal commission inquiry that uncovered shocking failures in the laws, regulations and inspectorate resourcing that should have been keeping mines up to standard, and a separate, successful and righteous prosecution of the company itself.

But it's one thing to prove what an outfit did wrong and another to be able to pin it, to the high standard required, on its boss.

In legal terms the buck doesn't necessarily stop there and there were real evidential problems marshalling the prosecution, not the least of which was the unavailability of people now overseas.

Already the evaporation of the case against Whittall is being seen as proof of further failings - a legislative framework which allows too much scope for individuals in such circumstances to hide.

Amid the eruptions of displeasure at the decision, the miners' union, the EPMU, has repeated its call for corporate manslaughter laws to be enacted to hold managers to account. Prime Minister John Key has no such intention.

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At least, he didn't until yesterday. It remains to be seen what impetus yesterday's turn of events might give the campaign.

The families, meanwhile, now have a second reason for ardently wanting the depths of the Pike River mine to be reached.

It's not only for the recovery of their loved ones, but also potentially for evidence.

- The Southland Times

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