A former businesswoman who stole nearly £72,000 of state handouts by claiming to be a single mother has been spared jail because her youngest child is disabled.
Andrea Lawner, 35, admitted benefit fraud for claiming extra working tax credit, income support and housing benefit over a five-year period on the false pretext she was living alone as a single parent.
But the mother-of-two was caught after investigators found a series of romantic selfies posted to Facebook which showed her kissing and cuddling her husband Scott Bennoch, who is believed to be the father of her youngest child.
Officials seized documents including bank statements and loan applications which revealed the couple were living together in Neston, Cheshire.
Lawner wept at Chester Magistrates’ Court as she pleaded guilty to four charges of benefit fraud, including an offence of failing to disclose she was living with painter and decorator Mr Bennoch as husband and wife.
The mother of two was caught after investigators found a series of romantic selfies posted to Facebook which showed her kissing and cuddling her husband Scott Bennoch who is thought to be the father of her youngest child
Andrea Lawner, 35, admitted benefit fraud for claiming extra working tax credit, income support and housing benefit over a five year period on the false pretext she was living alone as a single parent
One social media picture had shown the couple celebrating a three-year anniversary of a trip out, with the comment ‘Minor setback but now we will be stronger than ever!’
Alan Currums, prosecuting, said: ‘The defendant is before the court because she claimed a number of benefits she was not entitled to.
‘The first was Council Tax Credit between April 2014 and April 2018, Working Tax Credit from April 2016 to April 2015, Housing Benefit from July 2014 to May 2018, and Income Support paid from July 2014 to January 2019.
‘The total overpaid and which the department says is recoverable is £71,919.80. The benefits were paid on the basis that she had sole responsibility for bringing up two children on a low income.
‘Any change of circumstances, in any or all of the benefits, should have been made known to the Department.
‘But she failed to notify a change in circumstances around 6 April 2014, namely that she was living with a partner as husband and wife. Her partner was Scott Bennoch. He had been in remunerative employment.
‘Interrogation on Facebook showed that both parties were living as a couple. The amount claimed is quite substantial. The DWP will, if it has not already, claim the money by its own means.’
Lawner had no previous convictions. In mitigation her lawyer Steve Coupe said his client had run her own business from 2012 from 2014 but problems began when her youngest child, now aged ten, was diagnosed with a medical condition which ‘required a high level of care’.
In mitigation her lawyer Steve Coupe said his client had run her own business from 2012 from 2014 but problems began when her youngest child, now aged ten was diagnosed with a medical condition which ‘required a high level of care’
Mr Coupe said: ‘It changed the landscape. She came out of work and started to make a claim.
‘It was an on and off relationship she had with her partner. She accepts that they did cohabit for periods. It was not particularly stable.
‘The relationship was often breaking down, he would leave and then he would come back into the family fold.
‘She accepts he made some financial contributions to her which she should have disclosed.
‘She had some financial difficulties but accepts culpability and has made prompt guilty pleas.
‘She has paid the balance of £20,467 of the Housing Benefit and in terms of the rest she has paid £3,434.
‘There are powerful and persuasive reasons why any custodial sentence could be suspended in terms of the care required for her youngest son which would be in dire jeopardy if she is sentenced to prison today.’
Lawner was sentenced to a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for 24 months, and ordered that she undertake 120 hours of unpaid work and pay £220 in costs and victim surcharge.
Deputy District Judge Jane Hamilton said: ‘£71,000 plus has been taken from our pockets and the taxpayer.
‘Everybody sat in this room paid towards their taxes in order that people who are unemployed can get benefits and £71,000 has been taken from them.
‘I appreciate that you have paid some back but I see the reason you got into debt is not because of any necessary outgoings.
‘It was for your credit cards, buying things perhaps to help you feel better but not for things that were necessities.
‘The offence is so serious that it does cross the custody threshold buy I am willing to suspend that and that is really because of your youngest child and his disabilities.
‘The care that he needs and that your accommodation has been adapted for his needs and he will probably need surgery in a short time. It is only because of him that you do not go into custody immediately.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Hamilton asked her if she knew how ‘lucky’ she was not to be jailed.
Lawner said: ‘I am extremely lucky. Thank you very much’.
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