The appearance of a key witness at the inquest of a murdered Northern Ireland schoolgirl has been thrown into doubt because of a row over legal aid, a coroner’s court has heard.
Robert Howard, who was acquitted of killing teenager Arlene Arkinson, has not been granted funding for legal representation at next year’s hearing, it was revealed.
Ronan Daly, barrister for the Coroner’s Service, said: “The position is that funding has not yet been granted.”
Fifteen-year-old Arlene, from Castlederg in Co Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco in Donegal. Her body has never been found.
In 2005, Howard 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 found guilty of murdering Hannah Williams, 14, in south London.
A long-delayed inquest has been scheduled to take place at Omagh courthouse next April and is expected to last for just over two months.
Howard, who is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in Co Durham, has been named as a crucial witness.
His lawyers, who were unable to attend a preliminary hearing in Belfast’s Mays Chambers because legal aid funding had not been authorised, are set to challenge the payment delay through the High Court.
Mr Daly said Howard’s solicitors, from the firm Madden and Finucane, had written twice to the Department of Justice and were now seeking a judicial review.
“They have not received any acknowledgement to correspondence let alone an indication of funding,” added Mr Daly.
Senior coroner John Leckey said the judge must be made aware that inquest proceedings have been instigated.
He said: “It should be brought to the attention of the judge, all the complex arrangements that have been put in place and that the matter should be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.”
During the brief hearing it also emerged that police had disclosed 1500 documents relating to the teenager’s murder.
The move followed sharp criticism of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) by the coroner at a previous sitting.
Mr Leckey also responded to claims by PSNI deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie to the Policing Board that detectives were being diverted from live murder investigations to deal with disclosure.
He said: “The analogy I look at is the provision for medical documentation at inquests. I do not expect a surgeon to be taken away from surgery to stand by a photocopier – that’s an administrative matter.”
Mr Leckey said any criticism of his request for speedier disclosure was unreasonable.
He added: “I am not saying that experienced detectives should be taken away from investigating current serious criminal matters to deal with disclosure.
“I do not feel disclosure should take precedence over the apprehending of those who commit serious criminal offences.”
Barrister Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said all of the material would be available to the coroner’s court by the end of the year.
He said: “Because of the approximate number of documents, the court deemed everything potentially relevant, the detectives from the MIT (murder investigation team) are having to look at every single document from an investigation in 1994.”
Mr Robinson told the court that recruiting more staff to help with the task was not an option as they would have to be security vetted, interviewed, assessed and then trained.
He added: “Given the time frame in this case, the MIT are best placed because they are closest to the investigation to undertake the disclosure exercise.”
Another preliminary hearing has been scheduled for January 7 next year.