There are two main offences that are prosecuted in relation to benefit fraud, one involves dishonesty, the other does not.
The dishonesty offence
It is an offence to dishonestly make a representation in order to obtain benefit, and this includes a dishonest failure to promptly notify a change in circumstances as well as making a claim that is dishonest from the outset.
The offence absent dishonesty
It is an offence to knowingly make a false statement to obtain benefit, again this can be in an initial claim for benefits or failing to give prompt notification of a change in circumstances.
What does this actually mean?
The following definitions are given:
Dishonesty – has its normal meaning in criminal offences, although the lesser offence does not require dishonesty it does require proof of knowingly failing to notify. The test for dishonesty was recently revisited by the Supreme Court and the result may well be that it is now easier to prosecute for a dishonesty related offence.
Change in circumstances – there must be proof that the offender knew there was a change of circumstances and that the change would have affected a change in benefit.
Changes in circumstance could include starting to live with a partner, gaining employment or a change in finances.
Promptly notify- prompt is to be given its natural meaning and is a matter of fact. It is for the prosecution to prove that it was not prompt. It is therefore essential to explore all of the surrounding circumstances as this may provide a defence, not only mitigation.
Are there other offences?
There are other offences of fraud and false accounting related to benefits that are not covered in this article.
What is the likely sentence?
The non-dishonesty offence an only be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court and carries a maximum term of imprisonment of 3 months.
The offence involving dishonesty can be dealt with at the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court and carries a maximum of seven years imprisonment.
The main factors for consideration in sentencing will be the length of time of the overpayment, the value of benefits overpaid, and whether or not the claim was dishonest from the outset.
A claim that is of high value, over a sustained period and which was dishonest from the beginning is more likely to attract a term of imprisonment.