The cost to the public purse of defending double-killer Hazel Stewart stands at more than £440,000, the News Letter can reveal – with the vast bulk spent after her conviction.
But although this sum spent on legally supporting her protestations of innocence is subtantial, it does not represent the full amount.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) said it does not yet have the figures for the cost of a failed attempt to reopen her appeal.
Neither would it provide any legal aid costs she may have incurred over subsequent proceedings in civil court, saying the law (specifically, the Legal Aid Advice and Assistance Order NI 1981) does not permit disclosure of these costs in civil cases.
The amount paid to defend her partner in crime Colin Howell can also be revealed.
Including both his magistrates’ court and Crown Court appearances, his defence costs were £81,547.11,
The amounts were revealed thanks to a member of the public, who simply said that he had taken a close interest in the case.
He had written to Justice Minister David Ford – originally in January last year, and then again last month – asking for full details of the legal aid costs involved.
Although there have been reports about the value of both Howell’s and Stewart’s legal aid before during the last few years, it is thought that the figures revealed here are the most comprehensive yet.
The man – whose name the News Letter has agreed to withhold – said: “There’s money for nothing – the health service is on its knees. And we’ve this type of behaviour going on from Hazel Stewart. It just beggars belief.
“Readers will be aghast, I’m quite sure, that so much money has been spent on this case.
“I think people in Northern Ireland – the greater number of people – are unaware how much legal aid money is being put into these things.”
The breakdown of Stewart’s costs is as follows: £15,433.74 spent on her defence in the magistrates’ court and £99,083 in the Crown Court (the response from the DoJ stated that these amounts include VAT).
It goes on to add that the cost of her Court of Appeal case was £326,869.37.
All of these taken together add up to £441,386.11.
The DoJ added: “Further proceedings in the Court of Appeal also commenced; the application to reopen the appeal was refused.
“Further bills for payment for preparation of this fresh application will be assessed by the Taxing Master.”
Between them, the amount known to have been spent on both Stewart and Howell’s defences amounts to £522,933.22.
TIMELINE OF COURT HEARINGS
Stewart is serving a minimum 18-year jail sentence for murdering husband Constable Trevor Buchanan, 32, and Lesley Howell, 31, the wife of her ex-lover Colin Howell.
She was convicted in 2011.
The victims had been found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock in May 1991, and it was originally thought they committed suicide.
However, in 2010 dentist Colin Howell pleaded guilty to killing them with the aid of ex-Sunday School teacher Stewart.
An appeal against her conviction was rejected in 2013. A bid to restart it was rejected in 2015, with judges finding no merit in her lawyers’ arguments.
She is currently enmeshed in a battle over pension benefits she had claimed from her murdered husband, a matter for which she has also attempted to secure legal aid.