Northern Ireland

Hazel Stewart denied legal aid in fight for police pension benefits

Hazel Stewart leaves the court in Coleraine with her husband David in 2009. Picture by Paul Faith, Press Association
Hazel Stewart leaves the court in Coleraine with her husband David in 2009. Picture by Paul Faith, Press Association

CONVICTED double killer Hazel Stewart has been denied funding for a legal battle over police pension benefits inherited from her murdered first husband.

The National Crime Agency is seeking an order that she must repay money gained following the death of Trevor Buchanan.

But a trial due to get underway at the High Court in Belfast on Wednesday has been adjourned due to her failure to secure legal aid.

Stewart's lawyers are now planning an attempt to have that decision judicially reviewed.

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

Efforts to recover money from the former Sunday School teacher under proceeds of crime legislation have been hit by a series of delays.

Her barrister went into court on Tuesday to have the case put on hold again because legal aid has now been refused.

Her second husband, retired police superintendent David Stewart, is a joint respondent in the proceedings, despite facing no allegations of any wrongdoing.

He is defending the action as a personal litigant without legal representation.

Legal aid authorities are understood to have concluded that he should pay his wife's bills in the case.

It was stressed in court that the NCA accept Mr Stewart is "entirely blameless".

The case centres on finances which have since been tied up in the couple's family home.

Requesting a further adjournment, barrister Eugene McKenna said: "If the matter were to go on tomorrow my solicitors would have to make an application to come off record."

Mr Justice Paul Maguire stressed the need for proceedings to be dealt with as soon as possible, but acknowledged the legal and factual complexities.

"It may be there simply will be no legal aid available and eventually this case will come on without any legal representation for either of the Stewarts," he said.

The bid to recover money from Hazel Stewart comes as she continues to try to clear her name after being 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 in May 1991.

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

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, she lost her appeal against the conviction for murdering her husband, but has applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in a further challenge to the guilty verdict.

Her lawyers have also approached the body which examines suspected miscarriages of justice in an attempt to have her conviction for killing Lesley Howell referred back to the Court of Appeal.