By Pat Hutchinson, District Manager, Citizens Advice Newtownabbey
Q: I have been receiving income support for the past four years but I did not disclose that I got a job three months ago. I have received a letter asking me to attend an interview under caution; what are my rights?
A: If the office which pays your benefits suspects you of giving them wrong or misleading information to do with your benefits, they may investigate you for fraud.
What to do if you’re suspected of benefit fraud - If you are asked to attend an interview under caution, you should get advice from a criminal law solicitor straight away. It’s important that you don’t go to the interview without a solicitor. You may be able to get free legal advice under criminal legal aid. Your benefit may be suspended while under investigation.
Benefit fraud is a criminal offence, examples of benefit fraud include:
• Deliberately failing to tell the benefit office about your true financial circumstances when you claimed the benefit.
• Deliberately failing to tell the benefit office about your true household circumstances.
• Deliberately not telling the benefit office about a change of circumstances.
Who can be prosecuted for benefit fraud? - It is not only the person who claims the benefit who can be prosecuted for benefit fraud.
Your employer, partner or landlord could be prosecuted for making a statement or giving information to a benefit office which they know to be false.
A benefit office can investigate fraud at any time after it finds out any evidence about it; even if this is several years after the alleged fraud took place.
Benefit fraud and overpayments - If you know you’ve been overpaid benefit but don’t do anything about it, you may be suspected of committing benefit fraud.
If you are found guilty of committing benefit fraud it is likely that you will also have been overpaid benefit. The benefit office may take action to recover the overpayment in addition to prosecuting you for fraud.
What can happen if you’re suspected of benefit fraud? - If a benefit office suspects you of fraud or they want to question whether you’re entitled to the benefit, they will carry out an investigation. During the investigation, the benefit office may:
• make enquiries into your circumstances
• suspend your benefit
• interview you informally
• interview you under caution.
Informal interviews - Fraud investigators may ask you to an informal interview if they want to find out if there are grounds to suspect you of fraud.
Information you give at an informal interview may be used later to make an allegation of benefit fraud against you.
Interviews under caution - If the fraud investigators already think you have committed a benefit offence they are more likely to interview you under caution.
If you are asked to attend an interview under caution, this means that anything you say in the interview could be used as evidence in court.
What happens after the fraud investigation? - If the investigators find enough evidence to suggest you have committed benefit fraud, they may refer the case to the Public Prosecution Service.
Not all cases end in prosecution. The following factors will be taken into account before making a decision to take you to court:
• how likely the prosecution is to be successful. This will often depend on the type and quality of the evidence that has been presented
• the amount of any overpayment of benefit.
• whether you have previously committed benefit fraud
• the seriousness of the fraud. If you used forged or stolen documents or made multiple claims, there is likely to be a prosecution
• your health and personal circumstances
• Get free, confidential and independent advice from your nearest Citizens Advice – go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk/nireland or call at: Citizens Advice Newtownabbey, Dunanney Centre, Rathmullan Drive, Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, BT37 9DQ. Telephone advice is available 9am – 4pm each day on 028 9085 2271 (Lunch 1:00 - 1:30pm), email advice is available at firstname.lastname@example.org