24 Apr 2014

Judge: benefit fraud sentence does not deter

The latest in a short series of posts about inadequate benefit fraud sentences. Here is a remarkable case. The Judge herself describes the sentence she is allowed to impose by the Sentencing Guidelines as 'ludicrously low'. She specifically mentions that suspended sentences do not act as a deterrent.

A judge has hit out at the short jail term she was forced to give to a shameless benefit cheat - branding the sentence 'ludicrously low'. (h/t Dave)

Mother-of-two Louise Coulter, 38, was jailed after boasting it was 'easy' to swindle nearly £40,000 in state handouts in a four and a half year scam.

The court heard that, after falsely claiming her trucker partner had left her, when he was in fact still living with her and was working, Coulter used extra benefits to buy new wide screen TVs, a three piece suite and a new gas cooker worth £1,000.

But under sentencing rules slammed by the judge in the case, she was handed a 20-week sentence - of which she could serve only a quarter behind bars.

Coulter, who has two children aged 13 and eight, was also told to pay back the money at a rate of just ten pounds a week - which will come out of her benefits. Judge Beverley Lunt bemoaned the fact that the stolen money is unlikely to ever be recovered and said the payback scheme represented 'the taxpayer repaying the taxpayer.'

At Burnley Crown Court, the judge fumed:
You told the probation officer in terms that you thought that doing this [benefit fraud] is the easy option. Too many people like you think that it's the easy option. It may be the guideline sentences set down by the Sentencing Council, which judges must follow, are so ludicrously low that everyone thinks the sentences will automatically be suspended which clearly is not acting as a deterrent and that is a wrong assumption.
Describing Coulter's scam, the judge added:
You went to the Department for Work and Pensions and deliberately lied to them, saying [your boyfriend] no longer lived with you. You repeated that lie in 2012, and still maintained he wasn't living with you. This was premeditated. There is no reason to believe you would have stopped. Even when you were interviewed, you didn't admit it. You made them conduct further inquiries to get enough evidence to prove the case against you. Your pre-sentence report makes it clear you really have no thought for those people who were in genuine need of the money that you defrauded.
Earlier in the case, Julian Goode, prosecuting, said Coulter had legitimately claimed income support, housing and council tax benefits in 2003. She made a further claim for the three benefits in 2008, on the basis that boyfriend John Wilcox had left the household on November 13 and she had separated from him.

Coulter claimed income support from November 2008 until November 2012 and housing and council tax benefits from November 2008 until July 2013. She signed a form, declaring nobody else lived at the property and she had no other income other than child tax credits and child benefits. From November 2012 until July 2013, she claimed jobseekers' allowance.

But Mr Goode said surveillance was carried out on Coulter's home which showed Mr Wilcox going to and from the address. His car was either parked outside the house or at his workplace at a logistics firms. The DWP then made further investigations and found Mr Wilcox's car was insured at that address and he and Coulter had a house insurance policy, which was renewed annually and had not changed since November 2008.

After Coulter's arrest, several bank statements addressed to Wilcox were found at the address, as well as his P60 tax form and a letter from HM Courts Services for Wilcox from 2009 and addressed to him at Barclay Avenue. Wilcox had also got a loan, dated March 2010, and he stated he had lived there for two years.

Coulter was arrested in July 2013 but made no comment in interview. The court showed she had no previous convictions. She admitted three counts of dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances, two on or about November 18, 2008, involving income support and housing and council tax benefits and the other charge between November 3, 2012, and July 21, 2013 and regarding jobseekers' allowance.

In mitigation Fraser Hunter, defending Coulter, said she was now the sole carer of two children after she split up with Wilcox and was currently studying IT at college. Mr Hunter insisted the scam was not a fraud from the outset and added: 'There is remorse. There is regret. Whilst she was the sole claimant, I don't believe this was a case where she was acting alone.' Mr Hunter claimed Wilcox was 'highly influential' in her making the false claim and said: 'She faced a large amount of domestic issues. Her partner was involved in some sort of criminal activity during the relationship and one of the reasons investigating officers knew about that address was because he had given that address to police officers. He has now left her alone to face these proceedings and left her alone with the children. He is nowhere to be found.'

Coulter's terraced council house was boarded up and there was no sign of Wilcox.
  • Under sentencing guidelines, defendants over 18 who are convicted after a trial of fiddling around £60,000 state benefits after initially making a legitimate claim for welfare will usually face 36 weeks in jail.

    The custodial terms for those who plead not guilty can range between 12 weeks and 18 months depending on the amount of money stolen and the length of time over which the fraud took place.

    Those who plead guilty and spare the cost of running a jury trial can expect reductions of around a third on proposed jail terms - and will serve just half that.
A neighbour, who asked not to be named, said:
Louise has barely done a days work in her life. She wouldn't get off her a*** to do anything, she just sat inside. She was terribly lazy she never did anything. It's like the TV show Shameless around here and all the locals seem to be at it. A girl gets a couple of kids, they don't know who the father is and then they get free rein and all the benefits. I would expect someone owing all that money to get more than a slap on the wrist but nothing surprises me these days. It doesn't give out a very good message to people and I think the judge was right in saying it is ludicrous. If I had done something like that I would expect to go to jail for a substantial time. She spent a fortune on stuff big TVs, settees, three-piece furniture. She would order them and they would arrive in lorries. She must have a load of money coming in judging by what she was ordering. I think she bought a gas cooker for about £1000. Who needs a £1000 cooker. And she didn't make secret of it.

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