A lawyer for a convicted child killer due to testify at the inquest of a missing schoolgirl has warned of potential legal action if delays disclosing state papers persist.
Robert Howard, now in his 70s, is to give evidence before a coroner investigating the murder of Northern Ireland teenager Arlene Arkinson in 1994.
But Howard’s barrister on Friday voiced concern at the viability of the fixed September start date for the long-delayed probe, citing continuing problems gaining access to important police and social services files.
Karen Quinlivan QC told Northern Ireland’s senior coroner John Leckey: “Unless we get this material in the next week we are not in a position to professionally represent our client.”
Ms Quinlivan said she would have to “reflect” on whether to take judicial review proceedings in Belfast High Court to force disclosure if the documents were not forthcoming.
Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal.
Eleven years later Howard, who was the last person seen with her, was acquitted of her murder.
The trial jury was unaware of his history of sex attacks and his conviction for strangling south London teenager Hannah Williams in 2001.
With a body having never been found, lawyers for Howard - who is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in Co Durham - intend to challenge the presumption Arlene is dead at the inquest.
However, police on both sides of border maintain she was a murder victim and their investigations into her disappearance remain live.
In what was the 25th hearing in a preliminary inquest process that started in 2007, Ms Quinlivan told Belfast Coroner’s Court that she and legal colleagues were unable to start crucial preparatory work without getting the papers.
She raised a particular issue with accessing files relating to Arlene’s involvement with social services prior to her disappearance. The lawyer claimed the documents referred to the teenager’s expressed desire to “run away from home”.
Ms Quinlivan said her legal team had also yet to receive all papers from the PSNI, the Garda and from police in Kent on the Hannah Williams case.
The barrister highlighted that the Coroners Service had also not yet received all the files - just over three months out from the start of the inquest.
“The coroner doesn’t have access to all the material yet and this is 15 months after we first raised this as an issue,” she said.
Frank O’Donoghue QC, representing Mr Leckey, noted Ms Quinlivan’s concerns but urged the coroner not to “abandon” the start date at this point.
“I don’t intend to,” replied Mr Leckey.
Mr O’Donoghue said the Coroners Service would work with all relevant bodies to try to achieve full disclosure as quickly as possible.
Ms Quinlivan referred to a past inquest she worked on when a judicial review bid over disclosure was rejected by the High Court. She said, on that occasion, the judge turned down the challenge because it was lodged too late in the preliminary process.
The barrister said that legal action was made only when it was confirmed, days before the inquest start date, that papers would definitely not be provided in time.
She indicated she would not wait to that point again in the Arkinson case.
“We found ourselves on the wrong side of a judicial review as a consequence of it (the timing of the challenge) and we are not going to put ourselves in that position again,” she said.
One of the main logjams in disclosure is a series of redactions proposed by the PSNI on its papers, requested on the grounds of protecting the privacy of individuals. As a consequence, details about witnesses have been blanked out in files provided to the court.
The coroner has proposed “rolling back” the majority of these redactions but a lawyer representing the PSNI on Friday voiced concern at such a move - expressing fears it could impact the murder investigation.
The PSNI’s barrister said: “There may well be some matters arising out of the investigation that they (detectives) don’t want put out in the public domain.”
Mr Leckey stressed the importance of resolving all the outstanding disclosure issues swiftly.
The coroner’s involvement in the case ended on Friday. Mr Leckey is retiring in the autumn and by the time the next preliminary hearing is held on May 29 another coroner will have been appointed to the case.