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Coasters approach Cave Creek lawyer

Coasters approach Cave Creek lawyer with regard to Pike River
- Kip Brook

The lawyer that represent the families of the Cave Creek tragedy – just 10-12km away in Paparoa national park – has already been approached by West Coasters to prepare for a Pike River commission of inquiry.

Grant Cameron was the families’ lawyer at the Cave Creek Commission of inquiry at Greymouth in 1995. That inquiry found systemic failure in the collapse of the Cave Creek platform that killed 14 people. Inquiry commissioner Graeme Noble said it would be unfair to single out any one individual to be solely responsible for the tragedy.

The commission made four recommendations all of which have been enacted, the most notable being that the Crown should lose its exemption from prosecution for offences against the Building and Occupational Safety and Health Acts.

Cameron would not say which West Coasters had approached him but they were understood to be closely connected to the Pike River tragedy.

``We have already been approached by coasters with regard to Pike River and there seems to be considerable concern around the issue of whether the police somehow prevented Mines Rescue people from immediately accessing the mine,’’ Cameron said today.

``Whether they did or not needs to be looked at and considered if for no other reason than to make it very clear what the truth of the matter was and to establish whether there are any better practices that might be required in future. Thus, the terms of reference in any commission of inquiry that might follow this disaster, need to be wide enough to address these sorts of concerns.’’

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The Cave Creek terms of reference were initially drafted to look at causes, prevention issues, and possible need for improved practice and changes to the law. After a short discussion with the families, it was clear that the terms of reference there, had to be extended to include scrutiny of the police and rescue response. There was grave disquiet about alleged shortcomings in the way it was handled and families were concerned that some (Taipoutini Polytech) students could have been saved with much faster response.

Certainly, the creation of such an inquiry will provide all parties some time to get their ‘ducks in a row’ and so the government has more to gain by moving quickly, than by permitting any criticism to arise, simply by being perceived to drag the chain a little.

``Prior to the Cave Creek inquiry I did some research on commissions of inquiry generally. I found an Australian paper where the author had done an analysis of various Inquires held in the Commonwealth. They found two types to pertain. One was the sort of inquiry where the process was seemingly being used to ‘paper over cracks’ and to generally hide the truth. The other was designed to get to the heart of the matter and to lay bare, precisely what took place,’’ Cameron said.

``We discovered afterwards that key evidence was not presented in the commission itself and the fact that it was seemingly ‘mislaid’ was very disturbing. However, we were able to have regard to that when later negotiating civil settlements with the Crown, a process that went very smoothly.

``As to blame in tragedies, I have often thought I should have collected the number of times since Cave Creek where the phrase ‘systemic failure’ has been used in the context of any sort of disaster or calamity. It is used throughout the world. In the Cave Creek case we submitted to the commissioner that plainly, ‘systems’ do not design themselves, install themselves, monitor themselves, break down by themselves. All facets of any ‘system or procedure’ come back to human input. Therefore it was human act or omission that resulted in the calamity at Cave Creek and the commission was charged with identifying the particular human acts or omissions involved.
``The reality is that it the (systemic failure) concept is a nonsense if true ‘cause’ is being looked for and so one trusts that any inquiry here will not find itself sidetracked into this loose notion. With Cave Creek, a number of individuals could have faced manslaughter or other charges. Criminal consequences were open on the evidence and given the duties in the Crimes Act that pertained at that time.

``The fact that the government of the day never took those steps is another matter and not worthy of debate now. It’s also of note that often in the aftermath of disasters like this, we find that the victims and their families are far less interested in punitive measures than they are in finding out the truth and in then establishing true preventive measures. None of us want to have these things happen again but unless there is really diligent effort, history tends to repeat itself.’’

Cameron said it was likely that any Pike River commission of inquiry would require the commissioner to determine whether there has been ‘any breach of the law’ and to report accordingly.

I think there were a number of lessons from the Cave Creek experience which should serve to much improve the lot of the Pike River group of families in the trying weeks ahead.

So what of some legal advice for the Pike River families?

``Continue to talk to each other, support each other, start to note down what their concerns are. They shouldn’t listen too closely to rumours as there will be some silly stories circulating about what did or didn’t happen and about who did or didn’t do particular things. However, note names and details where there seems some substance and be prepared to tell their own stories in due course. At some stage they are best to form a small committee of their own and then get expert advice on what options are before them.

``The parallels with Cave Creek are many-fold. The same terms of reference could almost be used here word for word. The pain and agony is just the same, the mourning and coming to terms will be every bit as painful. There will be low points but some sense of purpose will soon emerge and then focus on asking the right questions can be had. Only then will the truth be laid bare as all New Zealanders yet anticipate it will be.’’


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