Arlene Arkinson inquest: legal aid granted

Arlene Arkinson is believed to have been abducted and murdered Arlene Arkinson went missing in 1994

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A convicted child killer and rapist has been granted legal aid for an inquest into the death of a schoolgirl he was cleared of murdering, a court has been told.

Justice Minister David Ford has approved funding for Robert Howard to be represented at the hearing to examine the disappearance of Arlene Arkinson.

Howard is seen as a crucial witness.

Mr Justice Horner was told that approval was reached on Christmas Eve.

Howard is expected to be called as a witness. The court was told that he may further challenge the decision to authorise legal aid payment for just one counsel.

The 69-year-old launched judicial review proceedings in a bid to force the authorities into a determination on his legal aid application.

Counsel for Howard said: "Effectively proceedings have served their purpose".

Delayed inquest

Fifteen-year-old Arlene, from Castlederg, County Tyrone, went missing in August 1994 after a night out at a disco in Bundoran, County Donegal.

Her body has never been found.

In 2005, Howard, who formerly lived near her home, was acquitted of her killing.

The jury was unaware that by then he was already serving life for raping and killing a girl from south London.

Fourteen-year-old Hanna Williams' body was found at a cement works in Northfleet, Kent, in March 2002.

A long-delayed inquest into the circumstances surrounding Arlene's disappearance is due to begin in Omagh in April and last for up to nine weeks.

Howard has already failed in a previous High Court bid to block the inquest.

Disappearance

His legal team claimed the move was an attempt to undermine the not guilty verdict returned against him in 2005.

They argued that the inquest was being used as a way of reopening issues surrounding the case because the Arkinson family was unhappy with the outcome of the criminal trial.

In 2011, a judge dismissed his application for a judicial review of the decision to hold a tribunal.

He is now set to give evidence at the inquest via video-link from prison.

Outside the court, his lawyer acknowledged that Howard remains the prime suspect for the schoolgirl's disappearance.

He said: "Mr Howard has been tried once for Arlene's murder and could potentially face a further trial.

"The jury could possibly reach critical findings against him which could form the basis of a further prosecution so it is imperative therefore that Mr Howard is afforded an equal opportunity to examine witnesses and elicit other evidence."

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