No end to the torture for Arlene Arkinson's family as lengthy legal tug-of-war plays out
For 20 years Robert Howard has tortured the family of Arlene Arkinson – and he continues to do so. Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco across the 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 a murder which it is widely believed that he carried out.
The jury was unaware he had a history of sex attacks and two years earlier had been convicted of murdering south London schoolgirl Hannah Williams (14).
The prosecution failed to take advantage of a recent change in the law which would have allowed it to introduce 'bad character' evidence.
But the Arkinson family refused to give up on their fight for justice and have campaigned tirelessly for an inquest to be held.
Following seven years of delays, an inquest into the teenager's murder was finally scheduled for April, with Howard as a key witness.
Justice Minister David Ford agreed before Christmas to fund the child killer and rapist's legal team, consisting of a solicitor and junior counsel.
However, Howard says that is not enough, with his legal team yesterday threatening to pursue a judicial review if Mr Ford does not provide more funding to cover the cost of senior defence counsel.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned the overall legal bill is set to top £100,000.
Howard has already failed in a previous High Court bid to block the inquest.
His legal team previously claimed the move was an attempt to undermine the not guilty verdict against him in 2005.
In 2011 a judge dismissed his application for a judicial review of the decision to hold a tribunal.
Howard is now set to give evidence at the inquest via video-link from prison.
With Mr Ford yet to make a decision on an application for additional support, Senior Coroner John Leckey was expected to hear an application from Howard's lawyers yesterday to officially adjourn the start of the inquest.
It 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 eleventh 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 the email stated papers outlining the application made by Howard's legal team were due to be completed yesterday and passed to the minister for a likely decision at the start of next week.
Mr Leckey said, given the intervention, he would hold another hearing next week at which he would consider the implications of Mr Ford's decision.
He asked Howard's barrister Dessie Hutton if his client would attempt to bring a judicial review if Mr Ford 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.
Even if Mr Ford agrees to the additional funding, Howard's barrister said it was likely he would be seeking the further adjournment of the inquest.
Henry Toner QC, representing the Arkinson family, voiced 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.
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.
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 concerns at the tightness of the timetable, noting that a number of major preliminary issues had not yet been dealt with.
Acting on advice from Mr O'Donoghue, the coroner agreed not to make any decisions on a timetable and examine the issue again at the next preliminary inquest next Friday.