Justice Panckhurst to chair Royal Commission

November 29th, 2010 at 1:56 pm by David Farrar

The Government has selected to chair the Royal Commission.

He is the second longest serving High Court Judge, having been a Judge since 1996. He also spent seven years as the Crown Solicitor covering Canterbury and the West Coast, which is useful.

Justice Panckhurst was a sole barrister and QC prior to his appointment to the High Court. He also seemed to have become a partner in a law firm, four years after graduating.

Interest will now focus on who the other two members will be.

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39 Responses to “Justice Panckhurst to chair Royal Commission”

  1. alex Masterley (1,517 comments) says:

    Can’t say I’m surprised about the selection.

    He’s local while the other two aren’t, even though Venning J is from Christchurch.

    This will be a difficult enquiry but I think that he will do a good job.

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  2. BeaB (2,123 comments) says:

    Panckhurst is also from Reefton so has a strong link to the Coast.

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  3. Lindsay Addie (1,514 comments) says:

    Looks like Panckhurst will a safe pair of hands to handle this. It isn’t going to be over anytime soon. He will have to I think avoid letting too much emotion into the Commission’s investigations of this tragic disaster and not allow the corporate interests to start indulging in spin. This isn’t going to be an easy show to keep on the road by any stretch of the imagination.

    Finally I would like to see one of the other members of the commission to be an Australian mining expert. That will hopefully add a true impartial air to proceedings.

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  4. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    I see Lindsay Addie has got in before me (and I think I noted at least one similar call from someone on another thread) but it’s a point worth making again.

    This needs to be looked at by at least one set of eyes unconnected with the players. And that doesn’t just mean the corporate interests (though obviously that includes them) but also the police. There’s culpability for 29 deaths in question – the stakes couldn’t be higher. Those who suspect their decision making, before or after the tragedy, might have played a role will be desperate to have the blame shifted. Personal networks – such as between police and lawyers – may potentially be misused.

    So in addition to echoing Lindsay’s call for an Australian mining expert being one of the Commissioners, I’d suggest an Australian QC for the role of counsel assisting the inquiry.

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  5. YesWeDid (1,048 comments) says:

    Rex, you’ve got a strange view of the world.

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  6. tvb (4,422 comments) says:

    I am sure Justice Pankhurst will do a very good job. Our High Court Judges are of the Highest calibre and a credit to the Legal Profession.

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  7. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    YesWeDid

    Strange? There’s credible argument, now the facts have emerged, that police stood by and let a shopkeeper die because their protocols are flawed. The same risk-averse protocols applied here.

    The reaction of bureaucracy when challenged on its competence is invariably obfuscation and justification. That doesn’t mean bureaucrats plan to, or in some way want, people to die. Or that there’s some bizarre conspiracy. Just that the system is highly resistant to criticism and change. And that the usual reaction of someone who’s made an error of judgment is self-justification and blame-shifting (though there are, admittedly, rare and noble exceptions).

    Just look at the reactions after Cave Creek. Only the Minister did the right thing… the bureaucrats scrambled for cover.

    NZ is a small place; people can’t help but know, and have connections to, other people – especially those in a small and relatively specialised field. Again no conspiracy, just fact.

    I hardly think it “strange” then, to suggest that as many outside pairs of eyes ascertaining and then examining the facts will produce the best possible outcome, especially given the complexity of the issue and the multiplicity of data. In fact given the foregoing, it’s strange not to think that.

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  8. Zhumao (339 comments) says:

    Our High Court Judges are of the Highest calibre and a credit to the Legal Profession.

    I’m sure they are OK. But what do you mean by the ‘highest’ calibre? Based on what measures?

    But New Zealand is a very small place. It would be good to have some overseas input.

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  9. Shunda barunda (2,983 comments) says:

    Kevin Hague has made an excellent post on Frogblog regarding issues of environmental concerns re Pike.

    http://blog.greens.org.nz/2010/11/29/conservation-concerns-not-to-blame-for-tragedy/

    The greens, and especially Kevin have handled this issue very well considering their concerns with coal, Kevin’s 2 speeches in parliament were excellent.

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  10. Gooner (995 comments) says:

    Rex, just to make this clear, are you saying whoever wrote the police regulations and/or police general instructions should be considered culpable of mass manslaughter arising out of their “negligent” or “reckless” drafting?

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  11. YesWeDid (1,048 comments) says:

    Rex, your views are strange because you somehow think the police share some blame for the deaths and you are implying they would do whatever they can to cover this up.

    I don’t think there are many people who would share this view.

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  12. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    Gooner:

    No, how could I possibly be saying such a thing before an inquiry gets to the bottom of the reason 29 men died!?

    I’m saying the police procedurals may be wrong. If they are, then the question of culpability isn’t so easily determined as blaming the drafters. The person who made the decision to even place mine rescues within the purview of the police, for instance, must have their judgment questioned.

    Words like “reckless” and “negligent” carry a connotation I’m not making – certainly not till the facts are known.

    All my comments are urging, at this stage in the process, is the establishment of a robust inquiry with at least one overseas mining expert (not that I don’t have confidence in Justice Panckhurst but he’s a layman in terms of mine knowledge) and a counsel assisting who won’t have to worry about the ramifications for his / her career should it appear that any cuplability lies with the police and that becomes a line s/he needs to pursue.

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  13. Dexter (303 comments) says:

    Your personal issues with the Police seem to be clouding your judgement and perspective here, long way off your normal posts.

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  14. Pete George (23,562 comments) says:

    I think the police handling of it will be relatively minor. The key things are what caused the first explosion, mine safety before and after that, rescue procedures, and the future of coal mining in the country.

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  15. alex Masterley (1,517 comments) says:

    Why does it have to be an Australian mining expert?
    Why are they better than an English expert or an American expert or an expert from anywhere else? China even?
    The last Austalian who stuck his nose in over here almost cost us as in the country half a billion dollars.
    Why the mania for having a QC on board. The only thing a QC will add is cost at $1k per hour, for a good one. However, the inevitabilty is that there will be a flock of them involved in the Royal Commission.
    And why an Australian QC? or a SC (depending on the state you happen to be in) for that matter? What about Jim Farmer QC for example. He’s a QC here and in NSW as well. Whats the difference between Jim (as an example) an Australian one or even an English QC?
    Pete G I agree. Who else would co-ordinate all the agencies involved in the disaster. The police have the logistical and support backing to manage these things. I can’t think of any-one else whose skill sets would even get close, not even civil defence.

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  16. reid (16,457 comments) says:

    “…there will be a flock of them [Q.C.'s] involved…”

    So it’s not a gaggle then Alex. I always thought it was.

    Thanks for learning me.

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  17. reid (16,457 comments) says:

    I expect the flock would have been pleased when told of the $100m business-restitution insurance policy that Pike River Coal holds.

    Wasn’t that good news.

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  18. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    YesWeDid:

    I think it’s possible the police, particularly in the person of Superintendent Knowles, follow over-cautious procedures where lives are at risk, wanting a virtual guarantee of the safety of rescuers, most of whom would likely be prepared to accept a lesser level of certainty if they were permitted to do so.

    Again the term “cover up” is a little emotive but probably not an entirely unfair characterisation, provided you think DOC “covered up” after Cave Creek. I wouldn’t have used it, though. I’d have said “self justification and blame shifting” as I did above, which carries, I think a slightly less malevolent overtone. From my observation, when a bureaucracy is challenged on its failures (and the upper echelons of the police are certainly a bureaucracy) then that tends to be their standard MO.

    The Australian is reporting (not online that I can find, alas) that one mine safety expert conclued that all the men were dead 48 hours after the first blast, saying “the families should have been told and the mine sealed” while another is quoted as saying “the decision-making structure was inferior to that in Australia, where mining emergencies are handled by company management supported by mine inspectors” and that “the move some years ago in NZ to replace mining insoectors with the police as the leading authority had been a grave error”.

    And that “It was the police chief placed in charge of the rescue, Superintendent Gary Knowles, rather than Whittal, who made the decision not to send the rescue teams in during the supposed window of opportunity immediately after the initial blast… That decision created some of the fiercest anger among the families”. Whittal, meanwhile, is quoted as thinking it highly prtobable there were survivors until the second blast some days later.

    It’s those sorts of views I’m talking about airing, openly and without fear of repraisal, at any inquiry.

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  19. lofty (1,310 comments) says:

    Ah Rex has returned with his not so objective view of the whole proceedings.

    You are urging Rex…who are you to urge anything?, your disgusting blame game comments last week make you the last person on earth that I would consider having a right to “urge” anything.

    You tried to come across as an expert in the mines rescue field and failed dismally..mainly because it is obvious you know f..all about the game.

    I loved your last week shots at Gary..good try…MISSED>

    have a dislike for the cops do you Rex..tried to fit you up “sometime” did they?

    I had respect for your posts once…no more Rex.

    you are out of your shallow depth here.

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  20. reid (16,457 comments) says:

    lofty personally I don’t see Rex advocating for anything but the truth.

    If what he alludes to in his last para happened, it should be raised at the inquiry.

    His first words are “I think it’s possible…” [His emphasis].

    I don’t think anything Rex has said over this has come across as a self-appointed armchair expert. Not from what I’ve seen. His is a legitimate perspective on this tragedy as all of ours are.

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  21. lofty (1,310 comments) says:

    reid..you see it your way and good for you…me, I see it mine.

    I generally enjoy rex’s opinions, but he has let himself down on this issue in my opinion.

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  22. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    @lofty:

    You are urging Rex…who are you to urge anything?, your disgusting blame game comments last week make you the last person on earth that I would consider having a right to “urge” anything.

    Please cite a comment where I have blamed anyone for the mining tragedy or cease taking umbrage at what you imagine I’ve said and try reading what I’ve actually said (helpfully interpreted by reid for you).

    I did question the knowledge and competence of Superintendent Knowles when it comes to mining rescues and thus his suitability for a position in which his decisions controlled the fate of the trapped miners. I wasn’t alone in that – at least one mining rescue expert I can find agreed with me – but I claim no specialised knowledge in the field. No more, for instance, than would be had by a police superintendent.

    Wrong person, wrong place, wrong time is all I’m saying at present.

    If the inquiry reveals that, as The Australian reports, he over-ruled Whittall (and possibly others with greater knowledge of mining) and refused to permit a rescue, I might have more to say. Till then I’m reserving judgement on anything but the suitability of any police officer for such a role.

    I note you call him “Gary”… I assume there’s either some personal link or else you’ve descended to hero worship. Either way, it’s rich for you to accuse me of lacking objectivity.

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  23. Gooner (995 comments) says:

    Rex, your arguments here are all saying the same thing, if in a slightly diferent way:

    There’s credible argument, now the facts have emerged, that police stood by and let a shopkeeper die because their protocols are flawed. The same risk-averse protocols applied here.

    This is a good example.

    You are saying exactly what I inferred earlier: That whoever wrote the police regulations and/or police general instructions should be considered culpable of mass manslaughter arising out of their “negligent” or “reckless” drafting.

    You are saying that the protocols (i.e policies) are risk-averse. Ergo, the police bureaucracy, and possibly the Ministry who wrote the Regulations could be culpable. Your reference to the Indian shopkeeper is evidence of that argument.

    Ian Wishart comes from the same position. If you don’t mind me saying so, it’s a fallacious argument.

    I ask you this: If Police were involved in a car chase and were ordered to stop the chase, because they weren’t following procedure (because it was too dangerous), but continued chasing (bank robbers for example), and then killed a pedestrian – would you argue then that the police should have followed the risk-averse protocols and stopped as they were directed to do; or would you say “follow your instinct, buggar the protocols, do your job regardless of the outcome”?

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  24. Swampy (191 comments) says:

    So the inquiry will last about a year. Anyone want to offer odds on Pike River reopening by 2015?

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  25. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    Dismal Soyanz:

    My apologies, I had searched the Australian’s website for the print title “Anger lingers after mine tragedy” and also for “Pike River” and a few of the names quoted and it didn’t show up. It ran on page 2 of the weekend edition, November 27-28 over 2/3 of a tabloid page.

    I now find there’s a cut-down version here which I couldn’t find when I commented before. The online version is credited to Ean Higgins but the print version is credited to Cameron Stewart and Higgins.

    Seems the online version repeats the salient quotes I’ve used above, in any case.

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  26. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    Gooner:

    With respect, saying that the protocils are flawed… even saying the people who wrote them were completely out of their depth, or incompetent, or even stark raving mad… is not the same as holding them culpable for the crime of manslaughter. They may have been acting with the best of intent (I’m certain they were), exercising their profesional judgment as best they could, but still failed to produce protocols that were adequate.

    When you say I’m suggesting “the bureaucracy” and “the Ministry” possibly be held culpable, I think you’re confusing “culpable” (or at least my meaning of it) with “accountable”.

    To me, culpable is a strong word. I think DOC were culpable for Cave Creek, in that the outcome of their actions was reasonably foreseeable; that there was an element of laisez faire and/or negligence in their actions.

    All I’m saying at this stage is, assuming Knowles was following the protocols, as was the commander in the shopkeeper case, then there’s an argument to be made that the protocols are over cautious.

    More importantly, though, I think Knowles was significantly out of his depth. Whether he persisted in command because he absolutely had to or because he believed he knew what he was doing is something else I don’t know at this stage. Thus I’m not “blaming” here either, despite being accused of so doing by lofty. If he was stuck there, out of his depth but with no choice but to remain and not hand over to someone who knew the industry and the rescue procedures then he’s certainly not culpable, and has my sympathy. In that case the person who imposed the protocol that said “remain in charge even when out of your depth” probably is culpable.

    I have to say, though, his defence of his role as “I command 2/3 of the South Island” (as though that somehow gives you the judgment to run a highly complex rescue operation) makes me think otherwise. But I’ll wait and see what the inquiry brings.

    I believe “the bureacracy” at some level is undoubtedly accountable for what happened at Pike River, in that 29 men ought not to be dead and so something is wrong with processes mandated by “the bureaucracy” – whether processes that occurred prior to the disaster, subsequent to it, or both – but it’ll have to wait for the inquiry to see if they’re culpable.

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  27. ross (1,437 comments) says:

    YWD wrote: “you somehow think the police share some blame for the deaths and you are implying they would do whatever they can to cover this up”

    I would say it’s up to the Royal Commission to decide where any blame can and should be apportioned. It may well be that police do come in for criticism. If you look at the Royal Commission that was set up in Australia over the bushfires there, you’ll see that the rescue effort was far from perfect.

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  28. ross (1,437 comments) says:

    > I think Knowles was significantly out of his depth…

    He may well have been, Rex, and an inquiry will possibly shed light on this. I tend to think he was merely the mouthpiece for various experts and was being guided by them.

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  29. ross (1,437 comments) says:

    > If Police were involved in a car chase and…then killed a pedestrian…

    Isn’t that the current position by police? How many innocent bystanders or road users have died resulting from police chases? It seems their position is far from risk averse…though the risk is not borne by them but the general public.

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  30. Pete George (23,562 comments) says:

    I think Knowles was significantly out of his depth…

    Why do you think that? I haven’t seen any sign of proof of incorrect decisions being made, nor any expert advice (that was closely involved in the explosion) being at odds with the rescue decisions.

    A fixation with one minor aspect of the explosion/s, an aspect that quite possibly had no affect on the end result (to be determined by the inquiry), gives the impression of a target, almost an obsession, rather than concerns about the whole disaster.

    Yes, the rescue command structure and practice should be examined, but it’s just one small part of a major investigation. At least as much attention should be given to another small part of it, the makeup and command of the rescue team. I’ve seen nothing that suggests any problem with that either.

    The continuing explosions suggest that concerns about the safety of rescuers were well founded, so Watts, Whittall and Knowles would seem to have made the right call, one strongly supported by a number of outside experts.

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  31. Pete George (23,562 comments) says:

    The Australian article linked to sounds largely supportive of what happened during the rescue, if you look at whole quotes rather than part quotes. Distraught family members will of course feel some anger. Experts back Knowles.

    It was the police chief placed in charge of the rescue, Superintendent Gary Knowles, rather than Whittall, who made the decision not to send the rescue teams in during a supposed window of opportunity immediately after the initial blast, when the methane would have been exhausted by the explosion. That decision created some of the fiercest anger among the families.

    But experts have backed Knowles’s decision, saying it is standard industry practice not to send rescue teams into a coalmine until it can be proved that methane levels are safe. “The emotional reaction (of families) is that the authorities weren’t trying hard enough, but history tells us that you can’t afford to have a rush of blood in these situations. You have to take this stuff very methodically,” said Gavin Mudd, a mining expert at Melbourne’s Monash University.

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  32. alex Masterley (1,517 comments) says:

    Can you imagine the fire-storm that would have engulfed Mr Knowles if he had sent rescuers into the mine before it was considered to be safe and they did not come out.
    In short he was damned if he didn’t and damned if he did.

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  33. Lipo (229 comments) says:

    If Justice Panckurst to running this Royal Commission I don’t know why it will take 12 months to come to a conclusion.
    I can tell you now

    Robin Bain did it

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  34. kiwi in america (2,452 comments) says:

    Alex
    Precisely my thoughts.

    Pankhurst was a top silk and will be a very safe pair of hands to head the RC. The families are understandably extremely stressed out and angry at the lack of a rescue and now recovery attempt. The RC should bring to light any missteps or deficiencies in both the mine operation and the SAR.

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  35. BeaB (2,123 comments) says:

    I am surprised none of the media have mnentioned that Panckhurst is a Coaster by birth and upbringing.
    John Key has confounded many critics (like those boring Labour letter writers in the Herald) by launching a wide-ranging inquiry headed by one of our leading judges who also happens to be a Coaster. No wonder the country likes this PM so much, He has a human touch.

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  36. Dismal Soyanz (16 comments) says:

    @Rex

    Given that Higgins was the one who posed the “country cop” question at the now infamous press conference, I am sure that there is no bias against Knowles whatsover in his reporting. *Coughs*

    Have a look at this TVNZ interview with Feickert. I would have thought that if he had believed the system used was deeply-flawed and inferior to that used in Australia he would have said so then. In particular, from the 5.03 mark where the question is asked whether the police should or should not have been in charge, Feickert’s answer hardly suggests that it was “deeply flawed”. He says that it would have been good if we still had a Chief Mines Inspector but that’s a major leap from there to saying it was deeply flawed.

    And no, the online article says nothing about an over-ruling.

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  37. Rex Widerstrom (5,354 comments) says:

    @Dismal Soyanz

    Given that Higgins was the one who posed the “country cop” question at the now infamous press conference, I am sure that there is no bias against Knowles whatsover in his reporting. *Coughs*

    A legitimate question, poorly phrased. And suggested to him, I take from the story, by family members and industry people who didn’t think a cop – country or otherwise – should be in charge of a mine rescue.

    And no, the online article says nothing about an over-ruling.

    The article doesn’t explicitly state that there was an over-ruling, no. But what else are we to make of the information that Whittall believed at least some of his men were alive (and thus would have been, no doubt, prepared to do anything to save their lives) and the pointed reference to the fact that it was not him who made the decision to prohibit a rescue at the time when it was most likely to have succeeded?

    If everyone was sagely nodding in agreement and happy to leave the 29 to their fate, as the NZ media seem only too willing to believe, then Whittall would be trumpeting his agreement, not distancing himself from the decision.

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