THE family of a teenage girl who disappeared 20 years ago say new legal obstacles which could further delay her inquest are a dagger through their hearts.
Child killer Robert Howard is the only suspect for the murder of Arlene Arkinson in 1994.
Yesterday his lawyer demanded Justice Minister David Ford increase the amount of legal aid he is being granted to appear at her inquest.
The demand could see the inquest – first ordered seven years ago – facing a further delay.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that Howard, already serving a life sentence for the murder of a teenager in England, is seeking legal aid of more than €122,000.
Howard's legal team say they are concerned the findings of the inquest could lead to Howard – found not guilty of murdering Arlene in 2005 – facing a new trial.
The total of more than €122,000 only covers legal preparation for the long-delayed inquest which had been due to start in April. The cost of his representation at the coroner's hearing, expected to last two months, will be much higher.
Arlene (15), from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco in Co Donegal. Her body has never been found. Howard was the last person seen with her.
A lawyer for sex attacker Howard (69) yesterday told Belfast Coroner's Court he "wouldn't bet against" judicial review proceedings being launched if Justice Minister David Ford decided against allocating more funding for his client's legal representation.
Howard wants the services of senior legal counsel to represent him throughout the inquest, as well as more funding for preparation time by his lawyers.
But it was conceded yesterday that the inquest is now unlikely to begin in April. Last night Arlene's family said they were devastated at the prospect of yet another delay.
"It's a disgrace," Arlene's sister Kathleen told the Belfast Telegraph.
"This can't go on. It's like having a dagger through our hearts, every single day of our lives."
Legal sources with knowledge of the case told this newspaper that preparation for Howard's appearance will involve between 200 and 300 hours of work.
So far Howard's team have been granted 100 hours' preparation time for a solicitor and another 100 hours' preparation for a junior counsel.
It is understood they feel that falls well short of what is required, and are seeking a senior counsel, similar to the Arkinson family.
The bill for 300 hours of preparatory work for one senior counsel, one junior counsel and one solicitor could top more than €125,000.
The bill will rise substantially when legal representation at the hearing is taken into account.
Howard is serving life in an English prison for the murder of English teenager Hannah Williams.
Legal aid, such as that offered to eligible participants in criminal and civil cases, is not automatically offered during inquests.
Witnesses are therefore required to make an application for a discretionary award of a grant to pay for their costs.
Howard's solicitor Fearghal Shiels did not want to comment on the legal aid bill. However, he said his client was entitled to proper legal representation.
"We have challenged the holding of an inquest in the first place because the (Arkinson) family had an alternative means of registering the death," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "However, the High Court rejected that argument.
"It is not that we have sought an inquest, but the decision has been taken to hold one and Mr Howard is entitled to be represented as an interested party."
Mr Shiels said there was a significant volume of work involved in preparing for the inquest.
"We are looking for a grant commensurate with the next of kin," he added.
"The level of disclosure in this case is unprecedented in terms of inquests, and the funding is needed for us to fully prepare for the inquest.
"We have 39 files of documents and we expect a similar number to come over the coming weeks."
Chris Kilpatrick and Adrian Rutherford