Belfast Telegraph

Benefits cheat mum fails to have five-month sentence cut

BY ALAN ERWIN

A mother jailed for a 20-year benefit fraud of up to £76,000 has failed in a bid to have her five-month jail term cut.

Northern Ireland's most senior judge ruled that the prison term imposed on Donna McCool was justified by the extent of her cheating.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: "There is a requirement for deterrent sentences to ensure others recognise that the system must not be abused for the benefit of the community as a whole."

McCool (46), of Circular Road in Derry, was jailed along with her partner Michael Cecil Harkin (50) last month.

She had admitted false accounting and making false declarations with a view to obtaining benefits.

The charges, which stretched back to September 1990, involved income support and jobseeker's allowance estimated at £76,000.

Her partner's fraud was assessed at being over £67,000.

Both defendants made false declarations about their marital status in order to unlawfully claim the benefits.

McCool's legal team challenged the sentence imposed on her, telling the Court of Appeal it was excessive.

Defence barrister Dessie Hutton contended that once the fraud started McCool found herself unable to stop.

He said: "You have to have particular courage to bring it to an end.

"She wishes she had had that courage."

As McCool sat head bowed in the dock, sobbing and flanked by prison guards, it was contended that based on true entitlements, her fraud only amounted to just over £5,000.

Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justice Higgins, accepted any benefits obtained were relatively modest, with no evidence of luxuries within the family home.

But he stressed the persistence of offending which is difficult to detect.

He said: "Unhappily, therefore, we are of the view that the culpability demonstrated by the period of time involved, the amounts of money involved, and the fact that there was other involvement in this offending justified the view taken by the trial judge that this required an immediate custody sentence."

He pointed out that McCool had not faced up to her responsibilities even when detected, pleading not guilty until a few days before she was due to go on trial.

Dismissing the appeal, Sir Declan said: "We do not consider that the sentence of five months imprisonment was wrong in principle or manifestly excessive."

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