Legal aid row over Arlene inquest
A Stormont minister could face a High Court challenge if he refuses to provide additional legal aid to a convicted child killer due to give evidence at the inquest of a disappeared schoolgirl.
A lawyer for sex attacker Robert Howard, 69, 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 during the probe into Arlene Arkinson's death.
The 15-year-old, 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.
Howard, who is serving a life sentence at has been named as a crucial witness in the long-delayed inquest, which is scheduled to start at the end of April - almost seven years after it was first ordered.
But that timetable has been thrown into doubt - raising the prospect of a lengthy postponement - due to the ongoing wrangle about legal representation for Howard.
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 costs.
Mr 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 commenced judicial review proceedings in Belfast High Court over the delay in getting a decision.
But his legal team now insist the level of funding is not sufficient - claiming the grant would not cover all the preparatory work required in the case, and questioning why Howard has not been allocated a senior counsel, unlike the Arkinson family.
With Mr Ford yet to make a decision on an application for additional support, Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner John Leckey was expected to hear an application from Howard's lawyers this morning to officially adjourn the start of the inquest - which is currently scheduled to take place at Omagh courthouse in Co Tyrone and is expected to last for just over two months.
But a dramatic 11th-hour intervention by a Stormont official, who informed the court Mr Ford was poised to make a ruling, saw Mr Leckey put off making a final decision on the timetable.
As the preliminary inquest hearing got under way in the coroner's court at 9.30am, a lawyer for Mr Leckey revealed that he had just been sent an email from a Department of Justice official indicating a decision from Mr Ford was imminent.
Frank O'Donoghue QC said: "An email has just been received literally hot off the press at 9.12am."
He said the email stated that papers outlining the application made by Howard's legal team were due to be completed today and passed to the minister for a likely decision at the start of next week.
The coroner agreed that, in light of the intervention, he would hold another hearing next week to discuss the consequences of whatever decision the minister makes.
But he asked Howard's barrister Dessie Hutton would his client attempt to bring a judicial review if Mr Ford ultimately turned down the request for additional funding.
Mr Hutton replied: "I don't want to give cast iron guarantees, but I think the likelihood is that would be looked at very, very closely.
"I'm not betting against it - if I can put it in those terms."
Mr Hutton said the continuing uncertainty over funding rendered the April 28 start date "unrealistic" in any event.
Expressing frustration at the time it could take to get decisions on legal support, he said: "Experience suggests that ministers have to be dragged through the bushes to produce decisions."
He added: "Even if we had a decision by today our position would still be that it might be unrealistic to expect by April 28 we would be across the papers in a such a way to do justice to the case."
There are around 45 lever arch case files connected with Arlene's disappearance.
The barrister indicated it would be likely he would be asking the coroner to adjourn the inquest even if Mr Ford agrees to the funding next week.
Henry Toner QC, representing the Arkinson family, voiced strong opposition to any adjournment.
He said the prospect of a postponement, which materialised at an earlier preliminary hearing last week, had had a "serious effect" on the schoolgirl's relatives.
"In every circumstance we object fundamentally to any adjournment," he said.
Referring the family's feelings, the barrister added: "Nobody is treating this as a play thing, but the effects on real people in the real world are serious, and I think we should all keep that in mind."
Mr Toner said if it came to a point where consideration was given to an adjournment, then another date and venue would have to be confirmed before any such move could happen.
"This case can't be adjourned into the wide blue yonder," he said.
With Mr Leckey's diary full for much of the remainder of the year, and court space at a premium, any postponement would likely be a lengthy one.
The coroner expressed his own concerns at the tightness of the timetable, noting that a number of major preliminary issues had not yet been dealt with.
Two, he insisted, were fundamental as to whether the inquest could actually proceed. Namely, whether he could be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that, firstly, Arlene was definitely dead and, secondly, whether she died in Northern Ireland.
Acting on advice from Mr O'Donoghue, the coroner agreed to not to make any decisions on timetable and examine the issue again at the next preliminary inquest next Friday.