A 12 month prison sentence, discounted from 18 months for a guilty plea, was not excessive for a mother who claimed £55,000 in child tax credit to which she was not entitled, over more than five years, although her then partner was abusive and failed to provide properly for her and her children, the Criminal Appeal Court has held.

Lord Matthews and Lord Pentland gave the decision in refusing an appeal by RA, who had claimed the benefit between May 2012 and January 2018, certifying that she was a single parent when she was living with her partner who was in full time employment. During this time she had notified changes in circumstances such as the birth of a child and changes in childcare costs. 

At time of sentence it was said that RA, a first offender was the primary carer of six children under 16. The father of the eldest child was deceased. Her partner during the relevant period had been physically and emotionally abusive towards her; he was dependent on alcohol, absent for periods, and failed to provide financially for her and the children. She had not led a lavish lifestyle; she was now living with a new partner, the father of her youngest child (five months old at the appeal hearing). He was willing and able to care for the children in the event of a custodial sentence. RA was making repayments of £100 a month but was unlikely ever to repay the full amount. 

The sheriff had regard to the guideline case of Gill v Thomson (2010) in deciding that only a custodial sentence was appropriate. Despite RA's family circumstances, the circumstances could be said to be sufficiently exceptional to justify an alternative to custody where she would retain her tenancy and where her new partner could care for the children whilst she was in custody.

Lord Pentland, who gave the opinion of the court, said there could be no doubt that, in view of the large sum defrauded, a custodial sentence would normally be required in terms of the guidelines approved in Gill v Thomson. "The circumstances would have to be truly exceptional to justify the imposition of a non-custodial penalty in a case where such a large sum of state benefits had been fraudulently obtained. Having given close consideration to all the circumstances of the present case, we are unable to say that a non-custodial disposal would be appropriate."

RA had "persisted in a prolonged course of conscious dishonesty", he continued. "We acknowledge the various difficulties that the appellant faced with her former partner, but we do not consider that these were sufficient to justify fraud on such a substantial and sustained scale. As the sheriff aptly observed, it is important to ensure consistency and predictability in sentencing in cases of this type. That was why sentencing guidelines were issued by the court in Gill v Thomson. There is no basis for departing from the guidelines in the present case. A custodial sentence was, in our view, amply merited."

The court could not fault the sheriff's approach in selecting the length go sentence and the appeal was refused.

Click here to view the opinion.