A convicted child killer is to launch a High Court challenge over the decision to refuse him additional legal aid for a Northern Ireland inquest into a schoolgirl’s disappearance.
Sex attacker Robert Howard, 69, is due to give evidence from behind prison bars during the probe into Arlene Arkinson’s presumed death. His lawyers argue that funding provided by Stormont’s Justice Department to cover his legal costs is insufficient.
The 15-year-old from Castlederg in Co Tyrone went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal. Her body was never found.
In 2005 Howard, the last person seen with her, was cleared of her murder but the jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and conviction for murdering south London teenager Hannah Williams.
He is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in County Durham and has been named as a crucial witness in the inquest, scheduled to start later this year after a near seven-year delay.
Howard’s barrister Dessie Hutton said a judicial review would be launched and warned his legal team needed more time to read themselves into the case and consider issues to be raised before an inquest could be heard.
“I don’t wish it to be said at any future stage that this should have been done at an earlier stage,” he told a preliminary hearing at a coroner’s court in Belfast.
“If those developments occur close to the start of the inquest it is because of the position that we have been put in by the minister.”
He added: “We foresee problems.”
Publicly-funded legal aid, such as that offered to eligible participants in criminal and civil cases, is not automatically given to those appearing in inquests and witnesses have to seek a grant to cover their costs.
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford granted funding for a solicitor and junior barrister to represent Howard on Christmas Eve last year, more than six months after an application for support was lodged. That came after the killer’s prospective lawyers commenced a judicial review over the delay in reaching a decision.
The forthcoming High Court challenge will focus on the failure to allocate Howard funding for a senior counsel, his lawyer said, unlike the Arkinson family.
The inquest was scheduled to begin in Omagh courthouse in Co Tyrone on April 28 and is due to last just over two months.
Senior coroner John Leckey has granted a two-week deferment of the start date following Mr Hutton’s submissions.
Around 45 files of documents are connected with the disappearance of Arlene and will have to be read by lawyers.
Henry Toner QC, representing the Arkinson family, agreed to the change in the start date but urged that a judicial review be dealt with as quickly as possible.
“Problems are made to be solved and it is a duty on all of us to try to solve the problems,” he said.
“We are here to solve problems; as far as I am concerned with a will we can all do it.”