A mother of five from Belfast who committed one of the biggest benefit frauds in Northern Ireland has been spared jail.
Pauline Donaghy claimed for benefits she was not entitled to over a six-and-a-half year period, resulting in an overpayment of £144,977.88.
She is now paying back £25 a week. As was noted in court, it will take around 100 years to repay the money.
The 42-year-old was handed a 12-month prison sentence, which was suspended for two years, by Judge RoseAnn McCormick, who said: “The overpayment appears to have been one of the largest ever prosecuted here.”
Belfast Crown Court heard Donaghy, from Ballysillan Road, claimed housing benefit and income support she was not entitled to.
She admitted obtaining housing benefit between February 2009 and August 2015 and failing to notify the Social Security Agency that she was living with her partner, and of obtaining income support between January 2009 and June 2015 in the same circumstances.
On the basis of false claims she was a lone parent when she was actually living with her partner, Donaghy was overpaid £22,347.14 in housing benefit and £122,630.74 in income support.
The court heard Donaghy’s partner was named as the landlord of the property, but that investigations revealed they were living together in the house “as husband and wife”.
The court also heard that Donaghy’s partner had been in full-time employment from 2000 until the detection in 2015.
When Donaghy was interviewed in August 2015, she admitted she had signed the relevant benefit claim forms, but had failed to notify of a change of circumstances.
She initially made the case that her partner was just her landlord, and that he worked in England frequently. She also claimed he had lived in the house before she moved in, that he called in to check the property sometimes, that he never stayed over, and she denied they were in a relationship.
When evidence was put to Donaghy that this man was living at the property – including medical and employment records – she admitted they lived together and he was the father of three of her children.
Her barrister said: “There is no extravagant living or lifestyle here, no fancy cars or foreign holidays.” Instead, he said Donaghy used the money for household bills and day-to-day living.
In her sentencing remarks, Judge McCormick said she had read the pre-sentence report, which details Donaghy’s personal circumstances. Saying she accepted “this matter has been hanging over her head, and that has been an obvious burden on her”, Judge McCormick revealed that after Donaghy’s offending came to light, the relationship ended, she had to move from that accommodation, and is now a single mother of five.
Also noting that Donaghy engages with medical services to address her “chronic depression and anxiety”, Judge McCormick said the money was used “for household expenses”.
Handing Donaghy a 12-month sentence, the judge concluded: “Her personal circumstances should be given considering weight, and accordingly I am suspending the sentence for a period of two years.”