Lawyers push for coronial inquest to probe who prosecutes mining fatalities

Less than a week after another mining death in Queensland, questions are being raised about how fatal incidents should be prosecuted.

Next month a coronial inquest in Mackay will look into the death of electrician Paul McGuire, who died working at the Grasstree coal mine near Middlemount, north-west of Rockhampton, in 2014.

The 34-year-old father suffocated on toxic gas when he opened a sealed hatch to calibrate a gas monitor after being given a job card that gave him the incorrect location of the underground device.

The space he accessed was a “goaf” — a disused area filled with dangerous methane gasses.

The mine’s operator, Anglo Coal, pleaded guilty to failing to discharge a safety and health obligation causing death and was fined $137,500 with no conviction recorded, while charges against an employee of the company were dropped.

Legal representatives spent much of pre-inquest hearing this week arguing whether or not the matter should be explored.

Initial terms of reference for the inquest outlined that it would examine whether “the process of prosecution, including the discontinuation of particular prosecutions, was appropriate to the circumstances of this case”.

Counsel assisting the coroner John Aberdeen told the court the inquest should consider whether the responsibility of mining death prosecutions ought to change hands.

“Important parties in this industry are not happy or satisfied with the way these things are done,” Mr Aberdeen said.

“There is no transparency to them.

“My submission [which] follows developments as late as last Sunday, when there was a further mining related fatality, is that Your Honour would consider making the comment that the possibility of the ‘industrial manslaughter prosecutor’ also taking over the prosecution … of mining related fatalities which are not manslaughter.”

“And most of them aren’t — they simply don’t satisfy the criteria for manslaughter.”

Currently, the commissioner for Mine Safety and Health conducts mining prosecutions.

After the mining death of 57-year-old Brad Duxbury last November, the Queensland Government announced it would extend its industrial manslaughter law to cover the mining industry in 2020.

Mr Aberdeen said an “industrial manslaughter prosecutor” should make prosecutorial decisions on all fatalities.

“One person should do that and that person should be an experienced prosecutor,” he said.

“It is unfair and inappropriate to leave these decisions to the commissioner.”

‘Fundamental change’
Dr Kerri Mellifont QC, representing mine operator Anglo Coal, told the court the current evidence before the coroner did not justify that line of inquiry.

“The proposed recommendations alluded to by Mr Aberdeen is one which really calls for a fundamental change in the way in which mining prosecutions are conducted within Queensland,” she said.

“Your Honour could only ever consider making a recommendation to change who makes prosecutorial decisions.

“If there was a case before you which made a claim that the prosecution, or those responsible for the decision, made such a fundamental error that you had formed the view that they should no longer be the entity we trust to engage in future decision making.”

Barrister Gavin Rebetzke, representing the CFMEU, argued the workers who risked their lives on mine sites deserved transparency regarding prosecutions.

“Decisions made about whether to prosecute or not to prosecute, whether to compromise proceedings that had been instituted, ought to be made in consultation with the representatives for the workers who work in the coal mines,” he said.

Coroner David O’Connell will now decide whether to modify the term of reference.

The inquest will also probe into the workflows which led to Mr McGuire being sent to a location from which the gas monitor he was sent to calibrate had been removed months before.

The coroner will also investigate why there was not sufficient signage or security on the door to the goaf.

Source: ABC News

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