Wednesday, January 20, 2010, 19:34
A WOMAN convicted of benefit fraud burst into tears at Plymouth Crown Court and screamed at the jury: "You're wrong! You made the wrong decision!"
Mother-of-five Sara Stirling was swiftly silenced by Judge Philip Wassall, who had already told the jury he did not intend to send her directly to jail.
The dramatic scenes came at the end of a three-day trial yesterday in which Stirling, aged 40 and from Plymstock Road, Tavistock, had denied dishonestly failng to notify a change in circumstances.
She claimed almost £10,000 in disability benefits while managing both a college course and a boat-building business, but said she had made "an 'honest mistake".
Arthritis sufferer Stirling applied for Severe Disablement Allowance in August 2000, despite being 'the brains' behind Working Sail, a small yacht-building firm she ran with her husband.
In 2003 she was headhunted by Falmouth Marine School to write and manage a new Level 3 boat-building course – but did not inform the Department for Work and Pensions until applying for a maternity benefit in 2007.
Stirling has since paid back the £9,939.65 she claimed and denied dishonestly failing to notify a change in circumstances.
During two hours of cross-examination at Plymouth Crown Court on Tuesday, she was evidently distressed as she described the whole benefits system as 'confusing' and 'degrading'.
Her barrister Paul Bitmead told the court: "This is a case of human frailty. "Making a mistake does not make her dishonest – it makes her human."
But DWP prosecutor Jo Martin described Stirling as "a determined and resourceful woman", who knew what she was doing.
Stirling, wearing a floral blouse, light grey trousers and a blue jumper, collapsed in tears and cried loudly as the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty.
Judge Wassall told her and the jury that although it was a lot of money and deliberate dishonesty, she was a woman of previous good character, this was a first offence and he had a mind to impose a short suspended sentence with a curfew.
Thanking the jury, he said they had paid "conspicuous attention to detail" and kept their eye on the ball.
But as they filed out, Stirling screamed: "You're wrong! You made the wrong decision!"
The judge told her sharply to be quiet, and said he agreed with the verdict.
An hour later, he passed sentence, with Mr Bitmead apologising for the outburst.
Judge Wassall said that was unnecessary, describing Stirling, who has a 10-week-old baby, as "a lady of previously impeccable character who has been under great pressure".
He told Stirling her difficulties had been "unimaginable", and she had struggled to bring up her children, adding: "Financial pressures caused you to turn a blind eye to the obvious.
"Pressure and strain caused you to act in an uncharacteristic way."
Judge Wassall said the offence was serious but the money had been paid back.
He added: "Had you pleaded guilty at an early stage, I might have dealt with it differently.
"In the circumstances, you shouldn't be going to custody for this.
"You should put this behind you, but you need to show the court it was a one-off."
Judge Wassall imposed a six-month jail sentence suspended for 18 months, plus a two-month home curfew from 6pm-midnight monitored by electronic tagging.
He refused a request for £1,000 prosecution costs because she has no money.