Lawyer challenges Pike River inquiry

UNFAIR: Stacey Shortall, lawyer for Pike River Coal's directors and managers, has challenged the royal commission.
UNFAIR: Stacey Shortall, lawyer for Pike River Coal's directors and managers, has challenged the royal commission.

Bernie Monk is confident the royal commissioners ''in their wisdom'' are in the best position to judge whether to resume public hearings on the Pike River coalmine tragedy.

Monk, the spokesman for most of the victims' families, made the comment today after learning that former Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall had new evidence he had applied to have heard and cross-examined by the commission.

''Either way, it doesn't really worry us, but if the commissioners see it can be done by submission, so be it,'' Monk said.

''If it is opened up, our lawyers do have some questions they want to ask.''

He was concerned witnesses could refuse to answer some questions at a resumed hearing for fear of incriminating themselves. ''Are we going to go down a particular channel and waste everybody's time?''

The application

Stacey Shortall, lawyer for former Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall and other Pike officers and directors, said today that they believed new evidence filed to the royal commission after hearings ended in April should be publicly heard ''in the interests of fairness''.

''They have therefore filed proceedings in the High Court at Wellington seeking judicial review of decisions made by the royal commission in relation to this matter, together with protecting fair-trial rights when the final report is released,'' she said.

Shortall, a partner at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, said no further comment would be made because proceedings were before the court.

Two weeks ago, the royal commission revealed Shortall had applied for it to reopen its phase 3 hearings so she could question three former Pike River managers who had made statements to it since public hearings finished on April 4.

They were former technical services manager Udo Renk and middle managers Terry Moynihan and Greg Borichevsky.

Renk had given a written statement for the inquiry's phase 1 hearing but the other two had provided no evidence before public hearings finished.

Their confidential statements were put on the commission's secure website last month for inquiry participants to view.

The commission gave all inquiry participants until noon yesterday to lodge submissions on any fresh evidence received since April 4.

''The commission considers that this application highlights natural-justice issues which apply to any evidence filed since April 4, 2012, which may have the potential to affect the interests of participants, not just Pike former directors and officers,'' it said on July 3.

After that, it would ''consider and decide whether any further steps, including a reconvened phase 3 hearing, are required in light of the reply evidence and further submissions''.

A commission spokeswoman confirmed today the commissioners would meet next week to discuss further steps as a result of reply evidence and further submissions over the new evidence.

Shortall also asked the commission to give its final report to her before it was made public if it contained adverse findings about her clients, which it declined.

The commission said it had to report to the governor-general by September 28 and it was up to him to decide whether findings were made public.

Whittall, Pike River Ltd and Valley Longwall International subsidiary VLI Drilling are due to appear in the Greymouth District Court on July 31 to face alleged health and safety failings over the mine's 2010 explosion.

Shortall believed their trial would go ahead after the commission report was given to the governor-general, which raised concerns about rights to a fair trial.

The Press