A Belfast woman who committed one of the biggest benefit frauds in Northern Ireland will learn her fate when she is sentenced next week, a court heard on Thursday.
Pauline Donaghy claimed benefits she was not entitled to over a six-year period, and as a result she was overpaid £143,634.80 in housing benefit and income support.
Belfast Crown Court heard that while the 42-year old mother-of-three is currently paying back £25 a week, “it would take 100 years to repay the money, not including any interest.”
After listening to submissions from both the Crown and defence, Judge RoseAnn McCormick QC branded the case and sentencing process as “complex and compelling” and said she would pass sentence next Tuesday.
Prior to adjourning sentencing, Judge McCormick heard that Donaghy, from Ballysillan Road, pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to declare a change of circumstances.
The 42-year old 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.
Crown barrister Kate McKay said Donaghy obtained an overpayment of just over £22,340 in Housing Benefit and an overpayment of around £122,630 in Income Support which she was not entitled to, whilst living with her partner.
The prosecutor said Donaghy’s offending started to emerge when an investigation was launched by the Department of Social Development regarding housing benefit on a house rented by Donaghy as a private tenant.
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.
Ms McKay said Donaghy 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.
The prosecutor said that 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 her three children.
Telling the judge she believed the custody threshold had been met, Ms McKay said Donaghy’s offending “went on for a considerable period of time”, and revealed the overpayment was “one of the largest there has been in this jurisdiction.”
Ms McKay added that she accepted the money was not used to fund a lavish lifestyle, and that Donaghy came before the court with a clear record.
Defence barrister Mark Farrell said that whilst Donaghy may have been reluctant at first to admit what she did during interview, “full admissions” were made.
The barrister said Donaghy had has had the case “hanging over her head like the Sword of Damocles” for over three years, which has heightened the depression and anxiety she already suffers from.
Mr Farrell accepted the amount of overpayment was a “significant amount of money”, telling Judge McCormick his client is voluntarily paying back £25 from her benefits. He said: “This amounts to £100 a month, so it will take 100 years to repay all this money, not including any interest.”
He continued: “There is no extravagant living or lifestyle here, no fancy cars of foreign holidays.” Instead, Mr Farrell said Donaghy used the money for household bills and day to day living.
Mr Farrell also spoke of Donaghy’s “remorse, contrition and regret”, adding that she may have been eligible for certain benefits had she informed the SSA of her change in circumstances.
He urged the judge to only consider custody “as a last resort” and said other alternatives such as a probation order would be more appropriate.
Judge McCormick told Donaghy she will be sentenced next Tuesday.