Hazel Stewart to take court action over legal funding refusal
Convicted double killer Hazel Stewart is to take High Court action over being refused funding to defend a bid to reclaim police pension benefits inherited from her murdered first husband.
Lawyers for the former Sunday School teacher are set to argue legal aid was wrongly denied on the basis of her second husband’s financial means.
Her solicitor, Kevin Winters, confirmed today that judicial review proceedings will be brought against the authorities who took the decision.
He said: “As a life sentence prisoner my client’s financial status ought to be considered on a stand-alone basis.
“She should be entitled to defend her case.”
The National Crime Agency (NCA) is seeking an order that Stewart must repay money gained following the death of Trevor Buchanan.
The 53-year-old 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.
A trial due to get underway last month had to be put on hold after it emerged that Stewart has been left without funding because of the legal aid refusal.
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.
With Mr Stewart acknowledged to be “entirely blameless”, legal aid authorities concluded that he should pay his wife’s bills in defending the claim.
The case centres on finances which have since been tied up in the couple’s family home.
But Mr Winters insisted that Hazel Stewart should be given the proper means to fight the NCA bid to recover assets.
“These are serious matters that are being faced,” he added.
“In order to deal with a complex set of proceedings plainly she is entitled to legal aid.
“Her application was refused on the basis that her husband’s financial means ought to be taken into consideration. That is contested.”
The bid to recover money from Stewart comes as she continues to try 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 Londonderry 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 taken their own lives.
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 since 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. ends