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Solicitor General advises against 2nd inquest

21 June 2005 Media Statement

Solicitor General advises against 2nd inquest

"The Solicitor-General has advised that there is no proper basis to order a new inquest into the death of Kenneth Richards," Attorney General Michael Cullen said today.

Mr Richards died on 22 March 1994 when a bridge providing access to Te Rata Station, owned by Margaret and Keith Berryman, collapsed.

"The Solicitor-General has concluded that it would not be in the interests of justice to order a new inquest or to apply to the High Court for an order that there be a further inquest," Dr Cullen said.

He said he had decided to release the Solicitor General's report because of the intensity of public interest around the saga.

Dr Cullen sought the report in April. Subsequently, counsel for Mr and Mrs Berryman also requested that the Solicitor-General formally consider a second inquest.

The Solicitor-General's report contains a comprehensive discussion of the background to the requests to consider a second inquest, including: the OSH prosecution in 1995-96 of Mr and Mrs Berryman under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992; the Army Court of Inquiry in September 1994 into the construction (in March 1986) and subsequent collapse of the bridge; and the inquest into Mr Richards' death which was conducted by the Taumarunui Coroner in 1997.

"The Solicitor-General's report lists five points which lead him to the conclusion that there is not a proper basis for him to order a new inquest:

- The long period of time that has elapsed since the bridge was built and since Mr Richards' death, which would make it difficult for the Coroner to resolve the matters that would be in dispute;

- It is not the Coroner's role to attribute blame or responsibility, but nevertheless a further inquest would be contentious and controversial;

- There is no realistic possibility that a further inquest would exonerate Mr and Mrs Berryman (although the Solicitor-General accepted that it is possible that a further inquest would place greater blame on the Army for agreeing to use second-hand Oregon timber for the bridge transoms);

- Mr Richards' family have not expressed dissatisfaction with the first inquest, or a desire for another inquest;

- Although Mr and Mrs Berryman did not have a copy of the report of the Army Court of Inquiry or the Butcher report at the time of the inquest, they did have their own engineering report into the cause of the bridge collapse, prepared immediately after the collapse and given by them to the Army Court of Inquiry. They chose not to use the information available to them at the inquest as it did not suit their interests to do so and there is no reason in principle why they should now have the opportunity to do so.

"Given the clear conclusions of the Solicitor-General's report and of Justice Wild's judgement that the Berrymans must take some of the blame for the events that led to Mr Richards' death, the government does not propose either to have any other form of inquiry or to increase the offer of a $150,000 ex gratia payment made to them in 2001.

"My advice is that the offer is very generous in the circumstances. The government, however, will not resile from that offer."

The Solicitor-General's report also comments on the conduct of the Army and expresses concern that submissions made by the Army to the inquest into Mr Richards' death were not consistent with the findings of the Army Court of Inquiry.

"I am satisfied that the submissions advanced on behalf of the Army were made in good faith. I understand also that the New Zealand Defence Force has taken steps to address the concerns expressed by the Solicitor-General, and has put in place a clear standard operating procedure for dealing with inquests," Dr Cullen said.

Since completing his report the Solicitor-General has sought and obtained authorisation from the Chief of Army, under the Armed Forces Discipline Rules of Procedure 1983, to the public release of material from the Record of Proceedings of the Army Court of Inquiry.

On the basis of that authorisation, the Solicitor-General, with the consent of the New Zealand Defence Force and Mr and Mrs Berryman, invited the High Court to remove the confidentiality orders made by the Court on 26 April 2005, which provided that the media should not publish the names of witnesses who gave evidence to the Army Court of Inquiry (with the exception of Mr GW Butcher), or details of their evidence. The High Court removed the confidentiality orders it previously made.

ENDS


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