Pike River Decision a Thumbs-Up for the Rule of Law

The Supreme Court recently decided that the dismissal of charges against former Pike River Mine boss Peter Whittall was unlawful. We support the view of the judges that their decision reaffirms the rule of law. The court found that Worksafe entered into an unlawful bargain in 2013 when it agreed to a deal in which insurers for Whittall would pay the Pike victims $3.41 million if the prosecution was dropped. Pike River victims Sonya Rockhouse and Anna Osborne brought the case. Whittall pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges of acquiescing in, or participating in, breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act and a trial was to have been held in 2014. Instead, negotiations starting in mid-2013 led to the payment of $3.41 million to the families of the 29 who died and the two workers who survived. The condition was that Worksafe offered no evidence to the court to support the prosecution. “It is contrary to the public interest and unlawful for an arrangement to be made that a prosecution will not be brought or maintained on the condition that a sum of money is paid,” the Supreme Court judges wrote.

That principle was not in contention in the appeal. The question was whether Worksafe had acted to give effect to an unlawful agreement of this nature when it offered no evidence to support the charges against Whittall. The judges, correctly in our view, re-affirmed a fundamental point in their decision, saying: “The rule of law is undermined if accountability and punishment for public wrongs turns on the means of the defendant.”