Anger over murdered Tyrone teenager’s inquest delay request

Arlene Arkinson
Arlene Arkinson

There were heated exchanges at Belfast coroner’s court as a lawyer for a man acquitted of murdering a missing Tyrone schoolgirl formally asked for an inquest to be postponed.

The barrister for Robert Howard, 69, said she did not consider a fixed start date in May as viable due to a range of outstanding problems with the disclosure of papers related to Arlene Arkinson’s disappearance.

Among a number of issues, Karen Quinlivan QC said the amount of material that had been blanked out in police case files provided to her was “beyond a joke”.

But as the lawyer was outlining her concerns to coroner John Leckey she was interrupted by the Arkinson’s family barrister Henry Toner QC.

“All we have had is a litany of problems, without solutions,” he interjected, indicating his opposition to any delay.

Ms Quinlivan, who has only recently been appointed to the case after the pensioner successfully applied for extra legal funding for a senior counsel, responded in strong terms.

“A little bit of courtesy from my learned friend would be appreciated,” she said.

The barrister told Mr Leckey, Northern Ireland’s senior coroner, she considered it inappropriate for another senior counsel to interrupt her.

“And certainly not in the manner in which he has just done it,” she added.

During the tense hearing in Belfast, Ms Quinlivan also applied for a court order restricting the reporting of a conviction held by her client during the inquest, which may be held before a jury.

Mr Leckey said he would rule on the matter next week, after receiving written submissions, but refused the lawyer’s request for an interim order that would have prevented reporting of the application until then.

Arlene, a 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, Robert Howard, who was the last person seen with her, was found not guilty of murder.

He has been named as a crucial witness in the long-delayed inquest, which is scheduled to start on May 12 - almost seven years after it was first ordered.

Among outstanding papers, Ms Quinlivan said she had not yet been given access to transcripts from the criminal trial - documents she said were of “core” importance to the inquest.

The lawyer said she had got almost 50 files but many of the redactions in the papers rendered them worthless.

“The redactions in those 46 files is beyond a joke,” she said, noting that even the age of Arlene had been blanked out.

She added: “They are not intelligible, we cannot run proceedings on the basis of those documents.”

The lawyer predicted serious allegations would be levelled against her client at the inquest and his lawyers needed to be adequately prepared.

“The allegation is being made that he’s responsible for the disappearance and death of Arlene Arkinson,” she said. “That is a serious allegation.”

The lawyer added: “We have a professional obligation to represent our client properly.

“We would not be doing our job if we were to say we were able to proceed with this inquest on May 12.”

Mark Robinson, representing the PSNI, said the police would be willing to review the extent of redactions to establish if police had been “over cautious”.

But he said any need for a re-examination should not knock back the start date.

“I don’t think it should prevent the inquest starting on May 12 in any shape, form or manner,” he said.

Frank O’Donoghue QC, a lawyer for Mr Leckey, suggested some of the proceedings could start on May 12 but possibly not the oral evidence.

Mr Leckey, who stressed that no finding of criminal liability could be made against an individual at an inquest, said he did not intend to alter the start date and urged lawyers to work together to try and resolve the disclosure issues.

The case had previously been hit by a legal wrangle involving the level of funding Justice Minister David Ford had afforded 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.

But his legal team insisted that was not sufficient and threatened to take High Court action against the minister.

Mr Ford subsequently reconsidered his initial award and offered funding for a senior counsel earlier this month.