Belfast Telegraph

Defence of killer Hazel Stewart cost the taxpayer £77,000

By Adrian Rutherford

More than £75,000 of taxpayers’ money was paid out in legal aid to defend double killer Hazel Stewart, it has been revealed.

The first details of how much it cost to defend one of Northern Ireland’s most infamous murderers were released yesterday — less than two weeks after she was convicted of killing her husband and her former lover’s wife.

Stewart and Colin Howell |plotted to murder their spouses in May 1991 by gassing them with carbon monoxide. They then |covered the deaths up as a joint suicide.

Tomorrow Stewart (48) will learn the minimum term of a life sentence she must serve before being considered for release.

Ahead of sentencing, it has emerged that at least £77,433 is |estimated to have been spent in legal aid to defend the former Sunday school teacher.

However, with Crown Court costs not confirmed and an appeal likely, the final bill is likely to be much higher.

Legal representation in the Magistrates Court — where Stewart initially appeared after being charged with both murders — cost £15,433 alone, including VAT.

So far the costs of her representation in the Crown Court have not been determined, however, it is thought the bill will run into tens of thousands of pounds.

Provisional estimates suggest the cost is “unlikely to be less than £62,000”. The details were disclosed following an Assembly question from Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.

Justice Minister David Ford said: “The bills for legal representation in the Magistrates Court have been assessed and paid and the total costs were £13,135.10, excluding VAT of £2,298.64.

“The (Legal Services) Commission has not received any bills for assessment for the Crown Court trial. Provisional estimates suggest that the cost is unlikely to be less than £62,000 (including VAT).”

The commission had initially refused to reveal whether Stewart’s legal fees were paid for out of the public purse, citing data protection reasons. However, last week it confirmed that her three-week trial and earlier court hearings were covered by the taxpayer.

The bodies of Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan were found in a fume-filled car at a garage behind a row of houses known as The Twelve Apostles in Castlerock. Howell gassed both as they slept at their homes in Coleraine and then stage-managed the deaths to make it appear suicide.

Stewart had denied killing the two, but admitted to police during interview that she was aware of the murder plot. She also told detectives she encouraged her husband to take a sedative and that she had destroyed evidence by burning the hose used by Howell to poison their victims.

Earlier this month a jury decided Stewart’s level of involvement constituted murder.

Howell is currently serving a |21-year jail term after he pleaded guilty to the murders last year.

Background

The decision to grant legal aid to wealthy Hazel Stewart will raise fresh questions about Northern Ireland’s controversial legal system. Although legal aid is means-tested, it is granted to a person charged with murder to fight their case, given the seriousness of the allegation. Last December it was revealed that payments to solicitors' practices during 2009/10 had topped £62m. Barristers also received £29.6m, with the total bill topping £91.6m.

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