Family members of some of those killed in Christchurch’s CTV building collapse will hear from police today about why they decided not to prosecute the building’s designers. The families have their own message for police – please reconsider. David Williams reports.

Police will today be asked to re-think their decision not to lay charges over the 2011 collapse of Christchurch’s CTV building, in which 115 people were killed.

After an investigation spanning three years, police announced on November 30 that no charges would be laid against the two men most responsible for the building’s structural engineering, Alan Reay and David Harding.

Police national media manager Grant Ogilvie confirms police, Crown Law and the Christchurch Crown Solicitor will meet with the CTV victims’ families today. “The purpose is to explain the decision to the families and answer their questions.”

Tim Elms, whose daughter Teresa McLean died in the quake-hit building, tells Newsroom the families – many of whom are disappointed and angry at the refusal to lay charges – have their own message for police.

“What we’re going to ask is if they’d reconsider the decision … and take out a prosecution. That’s what we’d like to see, ultimately.”

This coming Sunday, Justice Minister Andrew Little will fly to Christchurch to meet with the families.

The police decision not to prosecute sparked a public outpouring of sympathy for the CTV victims’ families and criticism of the law and how it was applied, particularly the advice to police from Crown Law.

Deputy Solicitor-General (criminal) Brendan Horsley advised police there was insufficient evidence to prove the CTV building collapsed because of design errors. An expert report found 11 errors. But to be successful with charges of negligent manslaughter, police have to prove a “major departure from the expected standard of care”.

Horsley characterised the case as one of “incompetence and inexperience” rather than deliberate flouting of the rules or conscious risk-taking. He was also concerned about the multitude of possible causes of collapse (including the severity of the earthquake and the roles of the building contractor and council), that could be exploited by the defence. There was also a technical barrier to prosecution, Horsley said, in the form of the controversial “year and a day” rule.

Newsroom previously outlined the difficulties of prosecution. Certainly, grieving relatives of the victims feared the worst as the police investigation dragged on.

It’s over to the families: lawyer

Nigel Hampton QC, who acted as family counsel before the Royal Commission, has called the police decision not to prosecute, “woeful”, “weak” and “timid”. If significant design faults caused the collapse in which 115 people died “surely the public interest is in a prosecution being taken”, he told RNZ.

Hampton tells Newsroom he won’t be attending today’s hearing, adding: “I think it’s over to the families to explore things with the police.”

In terms of other legal avenues for the families, should the police stick with their decision not to prosecute, Hampton says he’s got nothing to report. The families will take stock after the meetings today and on Sunday. “Things are still in a state of flux, really.”

Elms says he’s not sure what the chances are of police changing their stance. But Hampton told him that police could still ignore Crown Law’s advice and take a prosecution.

Elms won’t be at today’s meeting either – he’s moving house. But he’s spoken to Maan Alkaisi – one of the main players in a public protest held in central Christchurch last Sunday – about the message to be delivered to police.

“We’re all singing from the same songsheet – please have another look, basically,” says Elms, who expects a good turnout of CTV victims’ families.

Elms holds no grudges against police, who, he says, have “done a great job”. They’ve also kept the families informed. Detective Superintendent Peter Read, who led the police investigation, called Elms on the morning of November 30, ahead of the afternoon’s press conference to announce their decision not to prosecute. At the press conference, Read said: “If I’d taken my heart’s advice, we would have prosecuted. I can’t take my heart’s advice, I have to use my head.”

Beyond a police re-think, Elms says the families haven’t got a lawyer to help pursue other legal avenues. They also have no money for such a move. “If we get financial help maybe we could look at a judicial review.”

Elms is hopeful Little will be receptive to potential law changes.

It has been a long – and so far fruitless – fight for accountability. Elms led the charge for engineering’s professional body to punish Reay and Harding.

“It’s always been about accountability,” Elms says. “People stuffed up and they should be held to account.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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