Another engineer escapes professional discipline

The resignation of David Harding, the engineer responsible for much of the design of the CTV building, from the Institution of Professional Engineers (Ipenz) means he will escape any disciplinary orders Ipenz might have made.

It means that Harding, like his employer on the CTV job, Dr Alan Reay, who resigned from Ipenz earlier while facing an inquiry into his actions in the design of the CTV building, will escape the risk of further admonition from his peers over his professional activities.

Ipenz has said that a hearing to reassess Harding's continued registration as a chartered professional engineer will still go ahead. But the fact that he will no longer be subject to any disciplinary sanctions will disappoint relatives of the 115 people killed when the CTV building collapsed in the February 22, 2011, earthquake. From their point of view, it will appear that no-one has been held to account in any meaningful way for the disaster that led to the deaths of their loved ones.

That feeling is understandable. The desire to find an identifiable person or persons to blame when disaster occurs is universal. In practice, however, it is often far from straightforward. Liability, whether criminal or civil, is hampered by the difficulty of proving that any particular act or omission caused the disaster, especially when there have been many other intervening acts. A police investigation is still under way into the CTV building, but the fact that it is taking so long is a sign of the difficulties it is likely to be facing.

In this case, after the royal commission completed its inquiry, many looked to Ipenz to impose sanctions against its members who had had findings made against them. That has been foiled by their resignations. Anything Ipenz could have done was limited anyway. Membership of the body is voluntary and unlike the professional bodies to which doctors, lawyers and the like must belong, it can not suspend its members or impose career-ending penalties on them.

It may not be much, but at least Ipenz has accepted the devastating findings of the royal commission against its members. Specifically, it has accepted that the CTV building did not conform to the accepted minimum practice standard of the day in the structural engineering field. There were deficiencies in the design work and the primary design engineer, Harding, did not have the competence for designing a building of the complexity of the CTV building. The deficiencies in the design were not corrected through supervision within Reay's firm. The Christchurch City Council also failed to detect the deficiencies when a building permit was issued.

The royal commission also found that Reay knew Harding lacked the relevant experience for the job and should have realised that he was pushing him beyond his competence. The commission said Reay should not have left Harding to do the work unsupervised.

Those are powerful findings against both Reay and Harding. But while Ipenz has accepted them, when Harding announced his resignation this week from Ipenz Reay felt obliged to put out a self-justifying press release on the matter. It was a profoundly unwise thing to do. In the circumstances, public silence is the least that could be expected from him.

The earthquakes have shown up flaws in many things, not least the practice and governance of the structural engineering profession. Many people were surprised to find, for instance, that Ipenz is voluntary and its powers against its members are so limited. The Government is working to remedy that with the creation of a stronger statutory body, with meaningful powers. It is a small but necessary step.

The Press