Belfast Telegraph

Double killer Hazel Stewart wants legal aid to help her keep murdered husband's police pension

Convicted double killer Hazel Stewart is battling for legal aid to defend attempts to recover police pension benefits inherited from her murdered first husband, it emerged today.

The former Sunday School teacher is set to mount a High Court challenge against the recovery of funds she received following the death of Trevor Buchanan, over an income assessment based on disputed living arrangement criteria.

Stewart is in jail for the murders of Constable Buchanan, 32, and 31-year-old Lesley Howell, the wife of her ex-lover Colin Howell.

 She is also now facing a civil action brought by the National Crime Agency.

 It is seeking an order for funds Stewart gained following the death of Constable Buchanan.

 The case, brought under proceeds of crime legislation, is understood to centre on finances which have since been tied up in her family home.

 Her second husband, retired police superintendent David Stewart, has been named as a joint respondent.

 There is no suggestion whatsoever of any wrongdoing by Mr Stewart.

 Although the case is listed for hearing later this year, a dispute has emerged over Hazel Stewart's application for legal aid.

 Checks are carried out on the finances and earnings of anyone applying for funding, and partners they live with.

 But according to counsel for Stewart, the Legal Services Commission has failed to consider her prisoner status.

 Eugene McKenna said her application has reached "an impasse".

 He told the High Court: "The Legal Services Commission assessment office have combined both Mrs Stewart's income and her husband's, even though they are not living together."

 The barrister claimed the move went against the LSC's own guidance.

 "It looks like the only avenue open to Mrs Stewart would be to challenge that decision by judicial review."

 However, with "tentative discussions" ongoing, Mr Justice Treacy agreed to review the case again next month.

 The bid to recover money from Stewart comes as she continues to prepare a second attempt to clear her name.

 Her legal team has sent her case to a body which examines potential miscarriages of justice.

 They want the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to refer her conviction for the murder of Lesley Howell back to the Court of Appeal.

 Separate efforts are also being made to overturn a verdict that she killed Trevor Buchanan as part of the same plot.

 The mother-of-two's lawyers intend to introduce fresh psychiatric and psychological evidence.

 They also want to raise disclosure issues connected to another potential witness.

 Both victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, Co Londonderry in May 1991.

 Police originally believed they had died in a suicide pact after discovering their partners were having an affair.

 They were in fact murdered before their bodies were arranged to make it look like they had taken their own lives.

 Nearly two decades passed before dentist Howell, 55, suddenly confessed to both killings.

 He pleaded guilty to the murders in 2010 and was ordered to serve at least 21 years behind bars.

 Howell also implicated his former lover in the plot and gave evidence against her at her trial.

 In March 2011 she was unanimously convicted of both killings by a jury at Coleraine Crown Court.

 Last year Stewart failed in her first attempt to overturn the verdict that she murdered Lesley Howell.

 At that stage she did not proceed with a challenge to being found guilty of killing her husband.

 The Court of Appeal held there was strong evidence that she was a knowing and willing participant in the plan hatched by Howell.

 But lawyers now acting for Stewart have formally asked the CCRC to examine her case.

 It could take up to two years before the body reaches a decision.

 In the meantime Stewart's legal team are also seeking to take her conviction for murdering Constable Buchanan back to the Court of Appeal.

 She insists her challenge to that verdict was never abandoned. Nor was there ever any acceptance of guilt.

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