Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Lawyer: Further prosecution against Whittall not realistic

Peter Whittall. Photo / File / NZPA/The Press
Peter Whittall. Photo / File / NZPA/The Press

A lawyer who acts for the families of those killed in the Pike River Mine disaster says further prosecution against mine boss Peter Whittall is not realistic.

In a shock development yesterday, all charges against Mr Whittall, the former boss of Pike River Coal, were dropped at Christchurch District Court, the Crown saying it was "not appropriate to continue with the prosecution".

Nicholas Davidson, QC, who represented the families at the Royal Commission of Inquiry and has continued to act for some of them on a pro bono basis, said it was unlikely the families could take any further action against Mr Whittall.

"There's no suggestion of [a private prosecution being launched] and, realistically, there's no funding for such a thing. There are enormous complexities around it - a private prosecution in the case of a regulatory offence like this may not be available at all. But it's simply not on the agenda in terms of any formal discussion that I've had with families I've spoken with.

"They're having to get used to the whole proposition that, where things have gone so appallingly wrong as a result of individuals' conduct, it's not going to be tested in this case."

Mr Davidson said the families were shocked by the development.

"The thousands of questions they have about the circumstances and individuals who were involved in what happened at Pike River are never going to come out now.

"They feel immensely thwarted but more fundamentally they were shocked that, where there has been so much fault by people as we now know, that no one carries the can for this at all. They find this incomprehensible."

Mr Davidson said it was "most unusual" for a prosecution of this nature to be abandoned.

"This process is one that's been gone into with enormous thoroughness by the police and the Department of Labour in their combined investigation with staggering amounts of evidence available," he said.

"One would have thought that would have run its course and until two or three days ago that was the case. We now know that the prosecution has been struggling to the point it had real doubts about ... the result and the value of pressing on with public money."

Instead of being prosecuted, Mr Whittall and Pike River Coal offered a voluntary payment on behalf of the directors and officers of the company to the families of the 29 victims and the two survivors.

Anna Osborne, who lost her husband Milton, called this "blood money".

Lawyer Colin Smith, who also acts for some of the families, said the decision not to prosecute meant getting into the mine and recovering the men's bodies now took on a new importance.

It could form the basis for further prosecution as analysis of the bodies could result in manslaughter or other charges being laid.

Mr Smith said that was the last chance the families had for a successful prosecution.

- APNZ

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