Pike River trial moved to Wellington

A judge has ruled former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall would be significantly compromised if proceedings went ahead in Greymouth.

Whittall is facing 12 health and safety charges over alleged failures relating to the November 19, 2010 gas explosion at New Zealand’s Pike River underground coal mine which killed twenty-nine miners.

Hostility from Greymouth locals, administrative issues and travel problems are all reasons why Whittall wanted his trial shifted to Wellington in New Zealand.

The judgement, handed down on Monday by judge Jane Farish ruled the case will be held in Wellington. 

Whittall had held the position of chief executive for six weeks prior to the explosion, it has been alleged he participated or knew about safety breaches at the mine, Herald Sun reports.

To date Whittall has denied all 12 charges.

The country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment [formerly the Labour Department] is alleging he failed to protect workers from harm.

It will allege the harm relates to methane, strata and ventilation management, and mitigating explosion risk and impact.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of $NZD250,000.

In March, Whittall’s defence team applied to move the trial from Greymouth to Wellington where he resides.

At the time Whittall's lawyer, Stuart Grieve QC, told the court his client had experienced "hostile and inappropriate behaviour" by members of the Greymouth public and that his ability to defend himself could be prejudiced as a result.

"It has already taken the form of verbal abuse,” he said.

"It can be understood emotions are running high in Greymouth and rightly or wrongly those emotions are focused on Mr Whittall because he is the only defendant."

Whittall is the only individual to be charged over the Pike River tragedy.

The mine’s owners Pike River Coal Ltd and drilling company VLI Drilling were also charged with multiple health and safety failures.

Adding to Grieve’s argument to have the trial location altered was the fact that many of the 140 witnesses came from outside the West Coast region, including overseas.

He said moving the trial to Wellington would save about $470,000 for both sides in expenses.

The ministry's lawyer, Brent Stanaway QC, at the time told the court public interest in holding the trial in Greymouth outweighed "economics and convenience" for Whittall's legal team.

A date is yet to be set for the trial but it is expected to begin in January or February next year, running for 12 to 16 weeks with more than 100 witnesses and 600,000 documents.

Farish said the amount of documentation and the nature of the hearing are "quite overwhelming".

She added that the length and complexity of the trial were the only considerations in whether it should be moved.

"I do not place significant weight on his personal predicament as many defendants face difficulties in attending court where there are high levels of ill feeling toward them," she said.

The public interests will be addressed by streaming the trial live from Wellington.

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