Benefit fraud why you should always take a solicitor to the interview
The defendant in this housing benefit fraud case faced charges of dishonesty. This was in respect of his housing benefit claim. He had failed to declare that he owned a property, or income from it. As a result the total amount obtained was about £16,000. The Defendant’s Housing Benefit payments were made over a long period and paid directly into his bank account. The defence accepted that the information on the form was wrong. Accordingly if the information had been right he would not have been entitled to Housing and Council Tax Benefit.
Interview under caution
Council fraud officers interviewed the defendant about the allegation in 2015. He decided not to contact a solicitor as he was happy to be interviewed alone. The interview formed the central plank of the case against him as the Crown must prove dishonesty. He was later charged with an offence contrary to s111a of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
The defendant instructed our Private Client Defence solicitor Keith Hollywood who agreed a fixed fee. On analysing the papers, it became clear that the council have erred in calculating the overpayment. They had based their calculations on the full valuation of this property during the relevant period. Unfortuantely they had not taken account of the large outstanding mortgage. In our view, as the property was in negative equity, the defendant did not fall foul of the capital limit rules. The rules state that capital over £16,000 means there is no entitlement to benefits. We also identified other errors in the council’s case.
The defendant denied that he had acted dishonestly. In respect of the false statements his explanations were:
Failure to declare ownership of his other property – our case was that the client had not read the form carefully enough. As a result he had made an honest mistake and accepted it was his error. Fortunately we were able to show that the property had been declared as a previous address in another part of the form. Our client did not appreciate the need to declare it again.
Failure to declare income from this property- we argued that our client had to make large payments. For example mortgage, service charge and repairs. There was no profit left from rents received. There was therefore, we argued, no undeclared income
We advised the defendant who was certain that he wished to plead not guilty. He was told that he should pay back the money before trial if possible. We instructed counsel who works with us on these cases on a regular basis. The defendant gave evidence and after a closing speech the jury decided that our client was not guilty.
Note: This case is an excellent example as to why people accused of benefit fraud should take a solicitor to interview. The answers given in interview formed the central part of the case. There was also a record form the land registry. If we had been involved earlier there was a real chance we could have made representations that no charge should be brought. This was especially so if the overpayment had been repaid. See our other cases for more examples