Legal judgement could lead to open justice for Pike River families 

Sun, Mar 26

A new legal judgement could lead to more open justice for the Pike River families and the 29 men they lost.

The High Court's decision comes nearly 12 years after the West Coast mine exploded, killing the 29 men working inside.

Families may now be able to access the documents that led to the mining company's CEO, Peter Whittall, not facing prosecution in the disaster's aftermath.

Outside court, Bernie Monk, who lost his son in the disaster, described the issue in just eight words.

"Legal privilege has always stood in our way."

A year following the disaster, the mining company and its CEO, Peter Whittall, were charged over health and safety failures.

In 2012, Whittall pleaded not guilty to 12 charges, and a trial was set for the next year.

But in 2013, the charges against the former CEO were dropped, and a $3.4 million voluntary payment to compensate the families was revealed, much to their consternation.

At the time, the families called it "chequebook justice".

Now, more than twelve years after the disaster, no one has ever been prosecuted for it. Legal privilege, and confidentiality, mean the families still don't fully understand what led to the charges against Peter Whittall being dropped.

The families fought, and fought, all the way to the Supreme Court, which issued a remarkable judgement in 2017, calling the decision to withdraw prosecution following the payments, "unlawful".

Sonya Rockhouse said: "You can't have chequebook justice in this country, and we've just proved that."

However, privilege stopped the behind-the-scenes negotiations about Peter Whittall's non-prosecution from being revealed.

Multiple attempts were made to access the deal's documents through the Official Information Act and Ombudsman, but they were consistently blocked - on the grounds of legal privilege and confidentiality.

But on Friday, a judgement obtained by 1News said transparency matters in the interests of justice.

It said that without transparency, "there is scope for false speculation and misunderstanding" which "can undermine confidence in the administration of justice".

It means the families may now see the privileged material and be able to learn why charges were dropped.

Leo Donnelly, a former Ombudsman, said the judgement would "change the way the game will be played".

"Because the reality is, if it's that hard to find out why something the Supreme Court said was unlawful happened, then you've got to ask - have we got freedom of information at all?"

'Lay the truth out to the public'

Dean Dunbar's boy, Joseph, was 17 when the mine exploded; he was on work experience before starting full-time in the mine the following week.

His dad is exhausted, but keeps fighting, wanting authorities involved to do the right thing.

He hopes they're finally getting closer to the truth.

"To lay the truth out to the public with the only tool that we had, which was the media. We had nothing else. It's not that we enjoy doing this. It gives us anxiety attacks, mate; it's horrible," Dunbar said.

"Very private and personal people. But here we are, trying to lay it out in such a way that we can finally get the authorities to simply do the right thing. And, I honestly believe we're going to get finally to the truth.

"We hope to find out, who orchestrated this unlawful deal? Who was driving it? How high up it went?"


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