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MSD disputes Ashburton prosecution

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 4/07/2016

The Ministry of Social Development was told two years before the Ashburton WINZ killings it needed to do more to protect staff from the possibility of a lone gunman taking his anger out on them, a court has heard.

But the ministry is fighting against the possibility it might have to put an end to its open plan offices following the 2014 double murders.

Homeless man Russell John Tully, 49, has already been jailed for at least 27 years after he shot dead Peg Noble and Susan Leigh Cleveland in a rampage through the Work and Income offices.

The ministry has entered a surprise guilty plea to a health and safety charge brought by WorkSafe New Zealand that it failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees, but it disputes aspects of the charge.

In Wellington District Court on Monday, Crown prosecutor Dale La Hood said WINZ knew it was dealing with violent and threatening clients - Tully was one of them - and there had been assaults on staff.

He cited the 1999 fatal stabbing of ACC worker Janet Pike in Henderson and in 2012 a security review said the most serious threat would be "a lone mission-orientated person using a weapon to attack staff or clients" in an open plan office.

However, WINZ had failed to go down the path of Housing NZ, Inland Revenue or ACC and keeping people out of the main body of offices.

Had the Ashburton WINZ offices had a barrier between reception and the open plan offices, with access controlled by a swipe card or key code, Tully's rampage may not have been so harmful, Mr La Hood said.

The ministry's lawyer Brent Stanaway argued an independent and thorough review of security since Ashburton had identified security measures that could be implemented without "the blunt instrument" of prosecution.

It had now developed a prototype office with different zones of security and no longer worked out of the old Ashburton offices.

The ministry says it pleaded guilty to the health and safety charge but not because it implied it could have stopped Tully - whose attack it said was extraordinary.

However, it says it works with the public and an atmosphere of openness was key to success.

"I do not accept that organisations working with the public need to do that from behind barriers," chief executive Brendan Boyle said in a statement.

The court was also told MSD had already made an ex gratia payment to the victims - the details of which are suppressed - which hadn't exceeded the $110,000 paid to the Pike River victims or the $90,000 to victims of the Mangatepopo canyoning disaster.

The maximum fine is $250,000 but under the rules the ministry cannot be fined, although it can be ordered to pay reparation to the victims.

The court hearing, before Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue, is continuing with evidence from health and safety experts.

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