Benefit fraud, appears to be the flavour of the month for the UK’s tabloid press. It would appear the media are fed story-after-story by Government spin doctors seeking to justify far-reaching cuts to the Welfare Budget. Extra resources have been committed to fraud investigators. The inevitable outcome is undoubtedly a large rise in the number of investigations taking place.
Most investigations start with a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), inviting claimants to attend either a criminal investigation or customer compliance interview. Regardless of which interview they are invited to, claimants must seek immediate legal advice to protect themselves from loss of benefits or criminal prosecution.
The DWP’s Sanction Policy www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/sanction-policy.pdf is used to decide whether the alleged fraud merits a criminal investigation and prosecution where one or more of the following apply:
- The overpayment is in excess of £2,000
- False identities or forged or altered documents have been used
- The person was in apposition of trust or encouraged others to commit offences
- There is a previous conviction for benefit fraud
- A caution or administrative penalty has been refused
How can a solicitor help?
Firstly, they will be able to advise whether or not an offence has been committed, if not, claimants can approach the DWP to explain matters. Secondly, any interview that takes place will be under caution. The claimant therefore needs clear advice as to whether questions should be answered or not as there is no requirement for them to incriminate themselves. Sometimes it is best just to say nothing at all. However, claimants find this difficult when their benefit is under threat. The solicitor will also be able to obtain an outline of the case, which the DWP may not provide to the claimant alone. Most claimants will be entitled to Legal Aid and for those who are not, we provide flexible, affordable fees.
If an offence has been committed, the solicitor can try and persuade the DWP not to prosecute, but to administer a caution or give an administrative penalty. This means paying back the overpaid benefit and a surcharge of 30% of the amount overpaid. Neither is a conviction and the policy indicates should be available in cases where the sum obtained is under £2,000.
After charge our expert solicitors can challenge the amount of overpayment. This is crucial as the sum obtained will, in many cases, determine the sentence. We have dealt with cases where the alleged overpayment was almost £20,000, with imprisonment likely. However, when we checked the regulations and calculated the true entitlement this was reduced to a quarter of that sum and a financial penalty imposed.
Where there have been two benefits offences in the last five years, the DWP has the power to withdraw benefits for 13 weeks. It can also withhold benefits for four weeks on a single conviction or reduce them by between 20 and 40%.
The stakes are high. If you are being investigated, do not try to deal with it yourself, call Narinder Moss, Keith Hollywood or Laura O’Brien on 020 8986 8336 for expert advice and to arrange an urgent appointment. You can also e mail us or use our call back tab at the bottom of the page. We will reespond as soon as we can.