Hard decision probably right

Last updated 05:00 17/12/2013

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OPINION: It is easy to understand the profound disappointment that the families of victims of the Pike River mine disaster feel. The dropping of charges against Peter Whittall, the man who was manager of the mine at the time of the explosion, before the matter has even got to a hearing in court looks like a messy and unsatisfactory end to a messy and unsatisfactory process. But disheartening though it may be, the decision not to proceed against Whittall is, from all the evidence available, the right one.

The decision means that the legal outcome hardly seems commensurate with the scale of the disaster. After 29 people died in an explosion that was found by a royal commission to have been the result of multiple failures, only the mining company itself has been found guilty of anything. And that company is now defunct so the penalty and reparation that were ordered against it can not be enforced.

Prosecutions against individuals after such disasters are seldom clear-cut, however, and this case was as problematic as any. After a long investigation, the police ruled out bringing manslaughter charges against anyone. The fact that much of the evidence is still sealed off underground, and probably wrecked anyway, was one factor that led to that decision.

That left only prosecution by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment under health and safety legislation. The insolvent Pike River Coal Ltd did not contest the charges against it and the ministry obtained record fines and an order for substantial reparation against it. But in order to succeed against Whittall, the ministry would have to have been able to show that he was personally liable for the allegations being made against him.

To go ahead with a prosecution, according to guidelines for Crown prosecutors, there must be sufficient evidence to have a reasonable prospect of a conviction. A prosecution should also be in the public interest. In the Whittall case, as the court was told last week, the absence of witnesses was a major problem. In addition, Whittall was a secondary party to the company. A trial would also have been long and expensive and, if he had been convicted, he would have only faced fines. The ministry was no doubt reluctant after so long an investigation to let the matter go and the decision would not have been made lightly. But in the circumstances it was almost certainly correct.

That should be an end of the matter. Graham McCready, a retired accountant, has suggested that he might bring a private prosecution. McCready has brought several private prosecutions, including most recently one against John Banks. A private prosecution, however, would be entirely inappropriate.

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Private prosecutions on essentially trifling matters, such as McCready has brought before, are one thing. This case is too grave a matter for such a procedure. It would smack of vigilantism. It would have no hope of success and it may raise false hope. McCready, or anyone else thinking of it, should stay out.

- The Press

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