Judge takes pity on benefits cheat who claimed £50k to pay off her own human traffickers

Linda Okungbowa arrives at Sheffield Crown Court for sentencing after falsely claiming benefits to the value of �50,000

Linda Okungbowa arrives at Sheffield Crown Court for sentencing after falsely claiming benefits to the value of �50,000

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A BENEFITS cheat from Sheffield has been spared jail in “an amazing display of mercy” despite falsely claiming £50,000, which she used to pay off her own human traffickers.

Nigerian immigrant Linda Okungbowa, 36, claimed almost £50,000 in destitution and child benefits despite working under false identities.

Linda Okungbowa with members of the Ark Church after she was given a suspended sentence at Sheffield Crown Court

Linda Okungbowa with members of the Ark Church after she was given a suspended sentence at Sheffield Crown Court

In 2011 she was jailed for eight months after using false documents to obtain work while claiming £70,000 in benefits.

However Judge Simon Lawler QC, sitting at Sheffield Crown Court, chose to suspend her prison sentence after it emerged she had support from local churchgoers who were protecting her from committing further crime.

The judge said the exceptional circumstances of the case meant he wouldn’t be sending her straight to prison.

Judge Lawler said: “I may be criticised because fraud from the public purse is common and everybody in this court knows usually the offender goes immediately to custody. But in this particular case I can see no useful purpose to the public in sending you to custody.

I may be criticised because fraud from the public purse is common and everybody in this court knows usually the offender goes immediately to custody. But in this particular case I can see no useful purpose to the public in sending you to custody.

Judge Simon Lawler QC

“I hope you repay the trust the court has placed in you.”

Okungbowa, who illegally came to the UK in 2004 on a false passport, believed she would be able to train as a doctor after entering Britain, but instead became entrenched in a mounting debt cycle with the traffickers who helped her get into the country.

She said the traffickers kept increasing the amount they said she owed them and she was left so destitute her children were forced to walk 12 miles a day to school in Sheffield because the family couldn’t afford the bus fare.

She also ended up working multiple jobs in a bid to keep up with the repayments.

Neil Coxon, prosecuting, told the court after getting out of prison in 2011, Okungbowa took on the identity of a friend in London while applying for work.

After getting several different jobs in the care sector she asked the woman if the wages could be paid into her bank account and later transferred to Okungbowa.

Mr Coxon said Okungbowa told the woman she couldn’t be paid directly due to debts associated with her account.

Between July 2011 and August 2014, Okungbowa had claimed £22,610.47 in destitution benefits, and £26,201.56 in child tax credits and working tax credits between June 2011 and January 2015.

Okungbowa, who has three children aged 11, nine and one, said after the case: “I’m not proud of the things I have done but I have been given a chance.”

Ben Hudd, the reverend at The Ark church in Sheffield, said: “It was a balance between justice and mercy. We saw an amazing display of mercy.

“Although justice was done with the sentence, the judge had mercy on Linda because of all the things she has dealt with in her life. It was the perfect way forward.”

An investigation will now be carried out into Okungbowa’s finances to see if she can pay any of the money back.

Okungbowa admitted six counts of dishonestly making false representations and two counts of possessing or controlling identity documents to use in fraud at Sheffield Crown Court on Thurday.

The total benefits fraud she was sentenced for was £48,000.

Chris Aspinall, mitigating said Okungbowa’s sentencing had been delayed on four occasions while the Crown Prosecution Service investigated whether her recent benefit fraud totaled over £150,000 - rather than the £48,000 she had pleaded guilty to.

Mr Aspinall said: “On each occasion, she has come to court to be sentenced she had to explain to the two older children and tell them she may not be coming home.

“Arrangements had to be made for them be looked after. On each occasion, she has had to say goodbye to her children.

“It is not her fault the prosecution didn’t get this right the first time.”

Mr Aspinall said Okungbowa had been influenced by “others that had come over from Nigeria and others in her family” during her offending.

He said: “This is a lady who has had difficulties in the past and rather unusual circumstances when she came to the UK and the pressure she was put under by the people she came into contact with.

“It is certain she will not offend again as the local community are fully behind her and supporting her and the children. They are there to advise and counsel her and steer her away from problems in the future.”

Sentencing her to 18 months in prison, suspended for two years, Judge Lawler said the fact that Okungbowa had committed similar offences since coming out of prison had caused the court an “acute dilemma”.

He added: “You are now supported by the local community, particularly the church. The situation is quite different to the earlier circumstances and you are unlikely to offend again.”

After the case, Okungbowa said she had come to the UK in 2004 from Nigeria believing she would be training as a doctor – but instead became locked in an impossible cycle of paying back huge debts to criminals.

Okungbowa said after the case she had used the falsely claimed benefits to pay back the traffickers who kept increasing the amount she owed them and were threatening her family in Nigeria.

She said she was so destitute her children had to walk with her 12 miles to school in Sheffield each day as they could not afford the bus fare, while she worked multiple jobs to try to keep up with her repayments.

Okungbowa, whose children are aged 11, nine and one, said: “I’m not proud of the things I have done but I have been given a chance.”

Ben Hudd, the reverend at The Ark church in Woodseats, said: “It was a balance between justice and mercy. We saw an amazing display of mercy.

“Although justice was done with the sentence, the judge had mercy on Linda because of all the things she has dealt with in her life. It was the perfect way forward.”

Judge Simon Lawler QC said the exceptional circumstances of the case – along with the extensive support now being offered to her by her local church in Woodseats – meant he could suspend the normally customary prison sentence for such offending.

According to the National Crime Agency, 257 Nigerian victims of human trafficking were referred to support services in 2015 as part of a national scheme.

The country’s total, which rose by five per cent from 2014, was the third highest behind Vietnam and Albania, who had 478 and 600 referrals respectively.

Of the 257 total, 81 were trafficked for domestic servitude, 19 for labour exploitation and 115 for sexual exploitation.

In 2015, South Yorkshire Police referred eight people to support services, making it Yorkshire’s second highest source of referrals behind West Yorkshire Police, whose total was 80.

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