New Zealand / Law

Dropping Pike River charges 'unlawful bargain'

18:02 pm on 5 October 2017

There were elements of coercion in the decision to drop health and safety charges against former Piker River Mine boss Peter Whittall, the Supreme Court has been told.

Peter Whittall Photo: AFP / FILE

Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse, who lost a husband and son respectively in the November 2010 mine explosion, are asking the court to reconsider the Crown's decision to not prosecute Mr Whittall.

Twelve health and safety charges were laid against Mr Whittall relating to the deaths of 29 men in the explosion, but they were dropped after more than $3 million was paid to the victims' families.

Nigel Hampton QC, the lawyer for Ms Osborne and Ms Rockhouse, told the Supreme Court today the question of whether such a payment could be used to end a prosecution was a matter of considerable public importance.

"We submit the decision taken to offer no evidence and allow the... charges against Peter Whittall to be dismissed was in pursuance of a bargain and that bargain was unprecedented in New Zealand legal history and was unprincipled and unlawful."

He said Pike River Coal Limited had been ordered to pay reparation but could not because it had gone into liquidation, so the payment made on Mr Whittall's behalf was simply payment of a debt already imposed on the company.

Mr Hampton said as such, it was not reparation from Mr Whittall at all.

He said the women were seeking a declaration from the Supreme Court that the dropping of charges arose from an unlawful bargain.

However the Crown lawyer, Aaron Martin, said the action against Mr Whittall was a difficult prosecution and payment of reparation was just one of the factors considered.\

"There were many other significant factors in not prosecuting, including the prospect of a 16 to 20 week trial, with a number of witnesses who weren't available."

He said Worksafe New Zealand had a team of 15 working on the Pike River investigation and the prosecution file included 92 witness statements and around 600,000 documents.

Mr Martin said a review of charges was provided for in prosecution guidelines.

The case is continuing.