A married couple who continued claiming various State benefits despite running a pet service business have received 220 hours of community service between them.
Natalie and Vernon Spicer set up and advertised 'Fur Babies Adventures,' via Facebook and leafleting where they charged £10 for dog walking and various other pet services whilst still signing various declarations stating they were not working.
The court heard the pair faced a joint charge of failing to declare the business whilst still receiving benefits and Mrs Spicer faced a further five charges relating to various benefits she was claiming whilst running the pet service.
Advocate Perry gave the court some background on the couple where he described them as "experienced claimants" who had both been claiming benefits for many years. He said that on 21 September 2016 Mrs Spicer was deemed incapable of work due to a neck strain. It came to the attention of Social Security that in December 2016 a dog walking service had been set up called 'Fur Babies Adventures' which charged £10 an hour.
On 15 February 2017 in a claim for incapacity benefit a form was signed by Mrs Spicer confirming that she was unemployed and could not work due to her continued neck injury. On 28 February 2017 a joint claim was submitted claiming they were both sick and incapable of work, this was once again signed confirming that they were not undertaking work.
On 22 March 2017 Mrs Spicer was asked to attend the offices of social security and at that time was asked if she was working, which she denied. Surveillance started in April and continued into May and it was found she was walking dogs whilst forms were being filled out falsely stating she was not working. As part of the investigation some of the pet owners were spoken to who confirmed payments for services.
On 15 May 2017 Mrs Spicer had her benefits suspended subject to the investigation, she phoned to speak to Social Security on 16 May 2017 and asked them not to speak to her customers anymore and said that she "knew she was doing wrong, she would admit it all."
On 17 May 2017, Mrs Spicer went to Social Security for an interview but chose to make no comment. Mr Spicer contacted the department on 18 May 2017 where he told them he felt this may have been his fault as he was led to believe by a family member that you could earn up to £200 a week without it affecting your benefits.
During the time in question Mrs Spicer claimed £4,966 in benefits and Mr Spicer claimed £1,630.
Defending Mrs Spicer, Advocate Roffey said that she had not realised what she was doing was wrong. Judge McKerrell stopped Roffey at this point reminding him that when she phoned Social Security she had said she knew she was doing wrong and would admit it all.
Advocate Roffey continued explaining that Mrs Spicer had admitted the wrong doing once she knew she was under investigation and the penny had dropped, prior to this she believed she was able to earn up to £200 a week without it affecting her benefits. The court heard that in reality the walking service only earned around £30 a week and it was likely if it had been declared they would likely have still received some benefits.
In mitigation the court was told that neither Mr or Mrs Spicer ever tried to conceal the business and had openly advertised it on Facebook and via leaflets.
Summing up, Judge McKerrell stated that he struggled to understand how anyone could believe they could earn up to £200 a week without it affecting their benefits as that amounted to £10,500 a year, which is a significant sum. He said: "It defies belief that you thought this. On at least three occasions you signed forms stating you were not working. How you cannot see or cannot conceive in wrong doing is breathtaking."
Judge McKerrell stated that he had read various reports the previous night and seen that Mr Spicer did not believe anyone had lost out by their actions. Specifically addressing Mr Spicer he said: "You have a lack of reality about what you have done, to suggest nobody has lost by your actions."
Judge McKerrell continued by stating it was not just the benefits money: "All of the associated costs, the investigation, running the case, providing a lawyer through legal aid; every law abiding citizen has lost out."
In sentencing, Judge McKerrell said that it was only Mrs Spicer's previous good character and the fact that Mr Spicer's record had no previous dishonesty recorded, which avoided a custodial sentence.
Mrs Spicer was given 120 hours community service and Mr Spicer was given 100 hours community service as a direct alternative to prison with the strict instruction that failure to complete or comply with the order would result in a return to court.
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