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Gloucestershire Business News

Wealthy widow who cheated council out of £52,000 walks free from court

A wealthy widow who cheated a council out of £52,000 in benefits when she had more than half a million pounds in the bank has walked free from court.

Relationship counsellor Karen Spice, 61, of Cotswold Meadow, Witney, Oxfordshire, was 'milking the system to the last drop' during five years of blatant fraud, Gloucester crown court was told.

However, she was spared jail by Judge Ian Lawrie QC on the grounds that she does an 'important job' and has two adult sons who need her support because they have not yet got over their father's death seven years ago.

Spice pleaded guilty to three charges of fraud by claiming housing benefit, Council Tax reduction and Council Tax benefits from Cheltenham Borough Council while failing to disclose she had savings of £558,000.

The offences were committed between October 2011 and October 2016 and the total amount fraudulently obtained was £52,373, said prosecutor Nicholas Lee.

"Any savings over £16,000 have to be declared to the council by those claiming benefits and this defendant had access to £558,000," Mr Lee said.

"She failed to disclose this and also failed to tell the council of a change in her financial circumstances despite regular written annual requests to do so."

The court heard that Spice had 12 different bank accounts. When asked by the council, who had been investigating her, if she had an account with Coventry Building Society she said no. But in fact she had seven accounts with that society, the prosecutor said.

"She was milking the system to the last drop. She tried to disguise her finances and this was a persistent fraud over a length of time," said Mr Lee.

"The defendant now lives in a mortgage-free house in Oxfordshire."

Defending lawyer Sarah Jenkins said; "In 2000 her relationship with the father of their three children broke down and in 2012 he sadly passed away.

"When her mother died, my client benefitted from the estate and that is where a significant amount of the money came from.

"It was her wish to buy a house to provide security for her and her children and the two sons who still live with her."

The defence lawyer explained that her two grown-up sons had never got over the death of their father.

Ms Jenkins confirmed that Spice had paid back all of the £52,373 fraudulently claimed.

She told the court that there was "no element of a lavish lifestyle" in this case.

The court heard that Spice has worked for 14 years as a relationship counsellor and some 40 clients currently rely on her for help and advice.

Judge Lawrie said: "She has been fleecing the taxpayer out of thousands of pounds.

"So many people in this country are on the breadline and she is sitting on her savings, which are denied to so many people."

The judge told Spice: "You deserve to go to custody but you are not going to.

"You indulged in dishonesty for a significant period and creamed more than £50,000 from the system. Your offending is reprehensible.

"But the job you do is important and your two grown-up sons are still struggling to get over their father's death."

Spice was given a 12-month prison sentence suspended for 18 months and ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work.

She was also ordered to pay £340 prosecution costs.

*On the professional networking website LinkedIn, Spice says she has been a couples and family counsellor with Relate in Gloucester since January 2004. Prior to that she worked as a systems analyst for Alliance and Leicester building society from 1987-92 and for the Royal London Borough of Greenwich in a similar job from 1982-87.

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