Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Coroner hits out at police chief

Arlene Arkinson, 15, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco in Donegal. Her body has never been found.

A senior coroner has hit out at Northern Ireland's chief constable over delays in disclosing material to inquests.

John Leckey said resourcing issues should be raised with the Minister for Justice to ensure that long-running hearings are not held up.

He said: "I endeavour to hold inquests as soon as possible. But it is not happening.

"If the chief constable feels that he cannot comply with what I regard as my reasonable requirements, it is a matter he should raise with the Minister for Justice."

The issue was raised during a preliminary hearing for teenager Arlene Arkinson, who disappeared almost 20 years ago.

The 15-year-old 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, child-killer Robert Howard was acquitted 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.

An inquest has been scheduled to take place at Omagh courthouse next April and is expected to last for just over two months.

But it emerged in court that less than half the police papers relating to the case had been made available to the coroner's office.

Demanding that all material, with the exception of sensitive documentation, be disclosed to his office by the end of this month, Mr Leckey asked why additional officers were not drafted in from other UK forces to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) with the process .

He added: "If resource issues are a problem, it is a problem for the chief constable."

Mark Robinson, barrister for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, claimed detectives had been put under increasing strain because of last week's murder of Kevin Kearney in north Belfast and the hunt for Kieran McLaughlin in Londonderry, as well as flags and parading protests over the summer.

"Every effort is being made to have this exercise completed," Mr Robinson told the court .

"I just do not believe that the end of the month is going to be manageable."

It is understood that around 1,500 items are to be sent to the coroner's office next week. A further 17 lever-arch files have already been handed over.

Meanwhile, it also emerged that Robert Howard, the man suspected of killing Arlene Arkinson, is seeking legal aid to fund representation at the inquest.

Howard is serving a life sentence at HMP Frankland in Co Durham. He is due to give evidence at next year's inquest via videolink.

Barrister Desmond Hutton said the matter was with the Minister for Justice for consideration.

Mr Hutton said: "Given that he is a life sentence prisoner and his ill health, no, he is not someone who would be able to fund representation at an inquest of these proportions."

Mr Leckey said he hoped Justice Minister David Ford could make his decision by next month.

He said: "Should a life sentence prisoner incarcerated in HMP Frankland be provided with funding at an inquest concerning the apparent murder of a young girl in which he is the prime suspect?"

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