Legal issues at Pike River hearing

The preliminary hearing of the Royal Commission of Inquiry held yesterday was filled with emotion, including tears and a minute’s silence for the 29 lost men.

The lawyer for the families said yesterday those who lost loved ones in the mine on November wanted truth over justice.

But the issue of legal representation is an issue in the inquiry, with both Pike River Coal saying they could not afford the legal costs and a group of contractors reluctant to participate without legal representation.

At the preliminary hearing at Greymouth, Pike’s lawyer Stacey Shortall said the company could not afford to fully participate in the inquiry and receivers want the New Zealand government to fund its legal representation.

She said the company did not have enough money to prepare documents and witness statements the commission had requested and would only be able to fund legal representation at some of the inquiry’s hearings but Justice Graham Panckhurst, who is chairing the inquiry, told Shortall the commission expects “active involvement” from the company.

Pike River’s involvement would be particularly important, he said, in the third of the four phases, which is focused on what caused the explosion.

Receiver John Fisk, from PricewaterhouseCoopers told local media yesterday that the situation was “difficult” and the company’s priority is preserving its “limited resources” for secured creditors.

The receivers have applied for financial support from the New Zealand government, similar to that given to the victims’ families, Fisk said.

He said the company would still make executives invcluding former chief executive Peter Whittall available to the commission.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said he was disappointed with Pike River Coal.

"I thought they really should be co-operating better than that. They need to concentrate on making sure everything is open and transparent right to the end."

Bernie Monk, spokesman for the families, said he took the request from the company “quite hard” but had faith in the commission to resolve the issues and “get the truth.”

"I’m disappointed, but I’ll leave it at that," he said.

Monk also expressed his disappointment that attempts to recover the bodies of the workers have been unsuccessful, but he did receive a text message during the hearing that another borehole at the site had been completed, which will allow footage to be taken of the rockfall that is believed to be blocking the mine.

Lawyer for the families, Nicholas Davidson QC said during the hearing that while the families are not running their own investigation, they have conducted more than 100 interviews with people who had come forward with information.

A group of contractors who worked at the Pike River Coal mine say they are reluctant to appear before a Royal Commission without legal representation saying they are afraid of being incriminated in other investigations.

Their lawyer, David Butler, said the government has refused to pay for legal representation for the group to appear before the commission and his clients also being interviewed by the police and the Department of Labour.

He doesn’t believe the group has done anything wrong, but said they are hesitant to appear unrepresented before the Commission while the other investigations are underway.

Image: Counsel involved in the Pike River Royal Commission of inquiry;

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