A long-delayed inquest into the murder of a disappeared schoolgirl could be hit with yet another hold-up due to a wrangle about legal funding for a convicted child killer who is due to give evidence.
A lawyer for sex attacker Robert Howard, 69, today urged Northern Ireland’s chief coroner to consider rescheduling the probe into the death of 15-year-old Arlene Arkinson, citing ongoing difficulties in securing state approval for necessary legal support.
Senior coroner John Leckey acknowledged there was a problem but said he would wait one more week before making a final decision on whether to scrap the April start date.
Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal. Her body has never been found.
In 2005, Howard, who was the last person seen with her, was found not guilty of murder but the jury was unaware he had a history of sex attacks and that two years earlier he was convicted of murdering 14-year-old south London schoolgirl Hannah Williams.
The inquest is currently scheduled to take place at Omagh courthouse and is expected to last for just over two months.
Howard, who is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in County Durham, has been named as a crucial witness.
With Mr Leckey’s diary full for much of the remainder of the year, any postponement would likely be a lengthy one.
At a preliminary hearing in Belfast coroner’s court, barrister Dessie Hutton, representing Howard, said a long saga over funding for legal support had yet to be resolved.
Legal aid, such as that offered to eligible participants in criminal and civil cases, is not automatically offered to those appearing in inquests. Witnesses are therefore required to make an application for a discretionary award of a grant to pay for their legal costs.
Stormont’s Justice Minister David Ford granted such funding for a solicitor and junior counsel to represent Howard on Christmas Eve last year - more than six months after an application for support was lodged. The move came after the killer’s prospective lawyers had started judicial review proceedings in Belfast High Court over the delay in getting a decision.
While the ruling enabled legal representatives to formally come on to the case, Mr Hutton, who is now acting as Howard’s junior counsel, insisted the funding award was not sufficient.
With 45 lever arch case files, he said the grant to fund 100 hours of the time of a junior counsel and solicitor was not enough.
“If it takes two hours per lever arch file, even a first read of the papers of the case would exhaust that grant,” he said.
Mr Hutton added: “We don’t believe we have a realistic grant to cover us for all necessary preparation work that needs to be done.”
He said even if extra funding was secured, three months was not enough time to prepare for such a major case.
“I express regret that our first action in this case is to appear and express concerns about the timetable,” he told Mr Leckey.
The barrister also questioned why Howard had not been allocated funding to appoint a senior counsel.
Arlene’s family have funding for a senior and junior counsel while a senior and two junior counsel are working on the case on behalf of Mr Leckey.
The coroner expressed concern over the level of legal representation offered to Howard.
“I’ve no problem saying I’m surprised there’s an issue about senior counsel,” he said.
“It is a very complex case and would be a very lengthy inquest.”
Henry Toner QC, representing the Arkinson family, said the difficulties facing Howard’s lawyers were not of their making and claimed the inquest was being effectively “subverted” by the actions of others.
But he urged Mr Leckey not to make an immediate decision on adjournment, claiming it would have an “intense” impact on the schoolgirl’s relatives.
“As you can appreciate, for the family the setting of the date was an extremely important matter,” he said.
Mr Toner said in other cases he had been involved with, inviting the “decision makers” to attend court often brought decisions to a head.
The coroner replied: “What you’re saying is I should consider bringing the minister as the decision maker?”
Frank O’Donoghue QC, the coroner’s senior counsel, advised against that course of action in the short term.
“I don’t think we want to go down that line at the minute,” he said.
Mr Leckey did not make any request for the minister to appear in court but added: “The case also requires pro-action on the part of the minister.”
Mr Toner said adjourning the inquest would release all the pressure on the funding authorities to make timely decisions.
“I would very much like pressure to be kept on,” he added.
The coroner asked the parties to take one week to see if progress could be made in regard to funding and said, if needed, he would make a decision on adjournment next Friday.
Mr Hutton indicated it was likely he would be asking for an adjournment next week even if funding was resolved, as the preparation time-frame was still too tight.
“Our position might not change that much,” he told Mr Leckey.
Barrister Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said murder detectives were working hard to ensure all the necessary files would be ready for the scheduled April start.
“They are working tirelessly to ensure April 20th is engaged and works,” he said.