Hazel Stewart wins legal action over funding block to defend bid to reclaim murdered husband's pension benefits

Hazel Stewart. Picture by Paul Faith, PA Wire

CONVICTED double killer Hazel Stewart has won her High Court action over being refused funding to defend a bid to reclaim police pension benefits inherited from her murdered first husband.

It was conceded that the decision to deny legal aid to the former Sunday School teacher on the basis of her second husband's financial means was not properly taken.

A judge quashed the determination by consent and awarded Stewart her costs.

The outcome means legal aid authorities must reassess her eligibility for funding to defend civil proceedings.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) is seeking an order for her to repay money gained following the death of Trevor Buchanan.

Stewart (53) is serving a minimum 18-year jail sentence for murdering Constable Buchanan (32) and 31-year-old Lesley Howell, the wife of her ex-lover Colin Howell.

Efforts to recover money from her under proceeds of crime legislation have been hit by a series of delays due to the refusal of legal aid.

The convicted killer's second husband, retired police superintendent David Stewart, is a joint respondent in the proceedings despite facing no allegations of any wrongdoing and being described in court as "entirely blameless".

Legal aid authorities concluded that he should pay his wife's bills in defending the claim.

The case centres on finances now tied up in the couple's family home.

Hazel Stewart's lawyers issued judicial review proceedings over the decision to refuse her funding application, arguing that as a life-sentence prisoner her financial status should be considered on a stand-alone basis.

In court her barrister, Eugene McKenna, revealed that the parties had reached agreement that the determination should be quashed.

The outcome is understood to be due to a technical point about who took the decision.

It does not bar the authorities from reaching the same conclusion when they undertake a fresh assessment of financial eligibility.

However, Mr Justice Maguire confirmed: "I will quash the order... by consent, with the respondent to pay the applicant's costs."

The bid to recover money from Stewart follows a series of failed bids by her to clear her name.

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

The victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock, Co Derry, back 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 died by suicide. Nearly two decades passed before dentist Howell (57) 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 October last year she lost her appeal against being convicted of murdering her policeman husband.

She has also failed in attempts to overturn the verdict that she killed Lesley Howell.

Earlier this year the Criminal Cases Review Commission refused an application to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal.

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