62-year-old woman narrowly avoids prison after benefits mix-up

A grandmother from Teesside has recently been told that she will not face a custodial sentence, as a court case that has been hanging over her for years finally came to a close on 14 March.

Gillian Edwards is 62-year-old mother of three, who had been claiming a widowed mother’s allowance since her husband passed away. All seemed in order, and she continued to receive the benefit till 2014, when she dutifully informed the DWP that she and her new partner were buying a house together, and as they were entering into a formal relationship with one another, she wished to end her claim.

The information she provided prompted an investigation by the DWP into her domestic arrangements over the previous years, which revealed she had been living with her new partner since 2002, and had therefore been fraudulently claiming the benefit for 12 years.

£80,000 paid back

In total, the DWP assessed that Mrs Edwards had “defrauded the public purse” to the tune of £80,000. As someone who had spent a life working with disadvantaged people and had never been in any trouble with the law, Mrs Edwards was understandably shocked. She was unaware that even though the relationship between herself and her new partner was “informal” it was still something she should have disclosed.

When the fraud was revealed, she explained to DWP investigators that she assumed her relationship was not something that would be of relevance to the DWP until she and her partner took the step of purchasing a house together.

Remarkably, she managed to repay the enormous sum almost instantly, thanks to the help of family and friends. Nevertheless, the DWP commenced lengthy legal action, and the threat of a custodial sentence was very real.

A terribly sad thing

Judge Euan Duff described the sight of this 62 year old woman, with an impeccable record, standing in the dock as “a terribly sad thing.” Despite the fact that there had clearly been a misunderstanding, and Mrs Edwards had repaid the money promptly, she was nevertheless found guilty of committing fraud.

The offence carries a possible sentence of two and a half years imprisonment, but in sentencing, the judge said: “I tell you straight away you are not going immediately to prison today.” He described the fact that she had repaid the monies as “hugely significant” and also took her creditable character and unblemished reputation into account.

Ultimately, he imposed an eight-month sentence, suspended for 18 months, and sent Mrs Edwards on her way, with the words: “I’m perfectly sure that you will resume the creditable life which you’ve led and you’ll not be back again.”

Always report changes

Mrs Edwards is not the first person who has failed to report a change in circumstances, and will certainly not be the last. The vast majority of cases do not involve deliberate fraud or concealment, but simple oversight or the failure to understand what can be complex rules.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the various circumstances that the DWP needs to be told about, and from the comments received, it was clear that many people were surprised by some of the domestic factors that the DWP counts as material.

Perhaps the most sobering thought of all, though is this: What if Mrs Edwards had been unable to repay the money so quickly? Or what if she had a less than perfect record and had been in trouble with the police in her past for some unrelated minor offence? The chances are, she would be sitting in a prison cell today.

The moral of the story is that if you find yourself under investigation by the DWP, do not face it alone. At Hylton-Potts, we are experienced in dealing with government agencies, and one thing we always recommend is that you let us step in and deal with them on your behalf.

Please give us a call on 020 7381 8111, or email us at law@hylton-potts.com and a member of our team will be pleased to examine your circumstances and help you achieve the best possible outcome.

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