Benefit fraud offences
Benefits and tax credits are awarded to different people for many different reasons. Some can only be granted if the claimant meets strict financial qualification criteria (known as means-tested). Once a benefit has been granted, the continued entitlement can change due to a change in circumstances such as a single person moving in with a partner or recovering from an illness or disability.
Offences that are alleged can be wide ranging and complex. Some allegations will suggest dishonesty and others may be simply proved by a simple failure to notify of an event. There can be complicated conspiracies with false identities used on multiple claims. Equally there can be simple mistakes that arise when a legitimate claimant becomes ineligible due to having too much saved in their bank account when a “capital” limit for entitlement has been exceeded.
We are also receiving a number of enquiries from clients who, whilst studying at university have been approached by individuals via social media advising them that they may be eligible loans which they submit on their behalf for a fee. The reality is these ‘loans’ are fraudulent advance payments claims submitted to the DWP.
The government has for many years sought to “clamp down” on benefit fraud. In 2022 the government announced that they were putting a plan in place costing £613 million to try and stop £2 billion of losses resulting from fraud and errors made. Considerable resources are allocated to the Department of Work and Pensions and other agencies to investigate and support prosecution. Penalties for benefit fraud can be very severe including prison sentences.
Examples of benefit fraud include:
- Making a false claim – due to not being eligible or providing false information in support of a claim
- Claiming benefits and working at the same time
- Not providing true details or information about personal circumstances or financial circumstances
- Financial ineligibility due to having more money than declared
- Failure to report a change in circumstances
Interviews under caution
As part of the investigation process, a claimant will be asked to attend a compliance interview usually over the phone. After the compliance interview the claimant may then be asked to send documents to the DWP such as bank statements. If the DWP have a suspicion that an offence may have been committed they will ask the claimant to attend an interview under caution. During this interview, a claimant has the right to request a solicitor who can provide advice and assistance during the course of the interview. Legal aid is available for a solicitor to attend the interview in very limited circumstances.
Due to the complexity of the benefits system, early advice and assistance should always be sought as this interview can have an impact on the decision to prosecute. The benefit of having legal advice at the interview is that in the majority, if not all cases, information will be disclosed to your representative in advance of the interview. This will include any evidence that is currently available which forms the basis of the investigation. Your legal representative will have the opportunity to carefully assess the information disclosed and you will be advised on the strength of the evidence and the best approach to take with the interview.
Sometimes it is possible to avoid prosecution by clarifying and correcting misunderstandings or mistakes. Alternatives to prosecution can sometimes be suggested and achieved.
If a decision is made that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute a claimant with an offence, legal proceedings will commence and a court summons will be issued requiring you to attend at court.
The majority of these types of cases are prosecuted like any other criminal prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service but they can also be prosecuted by local authorities. Some offences can only be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court and whilst others must be heard at the Crown Court.
It is important that the evidence is examined in detail and advice is sought regarding the offences you are being charged with. Our specialists will fully prepare your case and provide expert representation at court. During the course of preparations, we regularly instruct medical experts to have input in cases that often provide supportive evidence to assist the defence case.
If convicted, penalties can range from a fine to a prison sentence. This is impacted by the offence itself, the level of culpability and the value of the amount obtained through the fraud.
Our recent benefit fraud defence cases
- Our client was a public servant in employment receiving benefits to support him due to various disabilities. Our client was alleged to have falsely stated his level of disability. At a trial in the Crown Court, the prosecution evidence was discredited and a positive defence (supported by comprehensive evidence investigated and secured by his lawyer) resulted in his acquittal of all charges. Had he been convicted, our client would have faced a prison sentence of several years.
- Our client was receiving a pension credit that was means tested. His wife commenced work resulting in re-assessment of his entitlement. Our client was accused of dishonestly failing to notify the DWP of a change of circumstances. The overpayment of benefit was over a long period of time and amounted to over £20,000. If convicted it placed our client at risk of a prison sentence. With our assistance at the investigation stage the DWP accepted no dishonesty had taken place and the matter was resolved by avoiding prosecution with the imposition of an administrative penalty.