A wheelchair-bound woman has been given a suspended prison sentence for a seven-year benefit fiddle, but a court heard it could take more than 90 years for her to pay back all the money.
Rastrick mother Elizabeth Phillips, 57, dishonestly claimed in excess of £80,000 after repeatedly failing to tell the authorities about her husband’s various jobs.
She finally owned up to the fraud when she was arrested and interviewed back in December 2012 and today (Tuesday) Judge David Hatton QC said the scam had “snowballed out of control”.
Phillips, of Gargrave Close, was helped into court by her husband and she sat in her wheelchair as her barrister Paul Fleming urged the judge to step back from an immediate prison sentence as an act of mercy.
During exchanges about the case it emerged that Phillips, who had no previous convictions, was repaying the overpayments of income support and council tax benefit to the tune of £70 per month.
Judge Hatton noted that at that rate the outstanding sum would take over 90 years to pay back.
“There’s no realistic prospect of it being repaid,” he stated.
Mr Fleming pointed out that the repayments were a sign of his client’s feelings of responsibility and those modest sums would cease if she were sent to prison.
He said the £70 represented a substantial part of the income available to her at present.
Phillips admitted eight charges of failing to notify the Department for Work and Pensions about changes in her circumstances, but prosecutor Angus MacDonald conceded that her initial claims for benefits back in 2002 were legitimate.
Mr MacDonald said the claims became fraudulent in 2005 when her husband started to obtain various jobs with different companies, but the department did not receive any response to letters asking about any changes in her circumstances.
He said an investigation led to Phillips’ arrest and interview in December 2012 when she made full and frank admissions about what she had been doing.
Mr Fleming told Bradford Crown Court that Phillips’ earlier life experiences had affected her judgement and she was fearful that her husband’s employment could be brought to an end at very short notice.
“It’s the decision not to be frank with the authorities which has led to this enormous loss being sustained,” he added.
“The frauds therefore became self-perpetuating.”
Mr Fleming suggested that Phillips was reluctant to take her head out of the sand and face the consequences of failing to disclose information to the authorities.
“She is deeply traumatised by the thought of going to prison,” he told Judge Hatton.
The court heard that Phillips was effectively house-bound while her husband was at work and that a night-time curfew would impact on her because she had enjoyed going with him on fishing expeditions after work and having some social interaction outside her home.
The court was told that her medical problems included diabetes, high cholesterol and very low blood pressure.
Judge Hatton accepted that Phillips was genuinely remorseful for her offending and said he was prepared to take an exceptional course in suspending her seven-month prison term for the next two years.
“You were undoubtably aware during the course of this that you were committing wrong and for whatever reason you persisted in it,” the judge told her.
“I accept what I have read that to a degree there was a snowball effect in that once having embarked on this course of conduct the only alternative to continuing it was to report it yourself and admit it.
“Fearful of doing that you had not choice but to continue, as you saw it, in this course of dishonest conduct which snowballed out of control.
“If you commit any offence in the next two years you will have to serve that sentence and your disability will be most unlikely to save you.”
Phillips also be subject to a home curfew between 9pm and 6am for the next six months and she will also face further legal proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime legislation.