A MARRIED couple who committed benefit fraud to fleece the taxpayer out of over £30,000 have had their jail sentences overturned on appeal.

Michael and Karen Haycock successfully appealed against their 24 week prison sentences during a hearing at Worcester Crown Court on Friday.

The couple, who held hands as they learned their fate, fraudulently claimed more than £30,000 in Pension Credit and Council Tax benefit over eight years.

Michael Haycock, 74, and his wife Karen Haycock, 59, both of Drugger's End Lane, Castlemorton, near Malvern appealed against the sentence on the grounds that the custodial sentences imposed on February 20 this year were 'wrong in principle' and 'manifestly excessive'.

The appeal against sentence was heard by Recorder Richard Atkins QC, sitting with two magistrates.

The court heard that the claims did not begin fraudulently but became so when the couple failed to notify both the Department for Work and Pensions and Malvern Hills District Council of changes in circumstances which affected their entitlement to those benefits.

The initial application for Pension Credit was lodged by Michael Haycock on November 16, 2008 on behalf of himself and his wife.

Thomas Griffiths, prosecuting, said this claim was back-dated to August 29, 2008 so the couple would have received a large sum which was paid into the bank account of Karen Haycock.

The couple submitted a claim for Council Tax benefit to Malvern Hills District Council on November 16, 2008.

However, Karen Haycock later failed to notify the authorities that her daughter was living at home and working 16 hours per week.

He said Karen Haycock also worked for three separate organisations over a seven year period, working 40 hours per week between January 26, 2010 and April 26, 2013; working 35 hours per week between August 5, 2013 and August 30, 2013; and working 37 and a half hours per week between October 1, 2013 and December 16, 2016.

The total overpayments over this period were £25,392 in Pension Credit and £5,367 in Council Tax benefit (total £30,760). Of the cash they claimed fraudulently, £200 a week went directly to their building society to repay their mortgage while £17 per week went into the bank account.

Recorder Richard Atkins QC said: "They both forgot that somebody was paying the mortgage for them. What a lovely thing to be able to forget."

Mr Griffiths said Karen Haycock had apologised for the overpayment and made arrangements to repay the money. However, she was invited to an interview with the DWP but did not attend.

He said: "The Department for Work and Pensions received a communication from a firm of solicitors who ask whether written statements would be sufficient as opposed to a formal interview."

DWP officials attended their home address where Karen Haycock said she thought 'everything had been sorted because she had agreed to repayments'.

The court heard the couple had already repaid £2,927 in Pension Credit and between £1,200 and £1,500 in Council Tax benefit since February 2019. A charging order has also been placed on their home to ensure all the cash is repaid.

Neither of the appellants had previous convictions. Mr Griffiths said: "It was not a fraudulent claim from the beginning."

The sentencing guidelines advised that the offence should merit a 36 week prison sentence as a starting point. However, the range available to a sentencing judge was a sentence between a community order at the bottom end of the scale to a 21 month prison sentence at the top end.

Glenn Cook, for the couple, said the fraud stemmed from a property venture that 'went wrong' and they found they were unable to sell property they had invested in.

"That caused real financial hardship and pressure upon the family" he said. He said Mrs Haycock had opened a coffee shop in Worcester and it was at that time the claims were set up. He also said Karen Haycock had suffered a nervous breakdown and had been diagnosed with mental health difficulties.

He added that there had been periods of bankruptcy after the failure of the coffee shop in February 2010. Michael Haycock had suffered a heart attack which had an impact on his earnings and required a stent.

Mr Cook said the couple had shown 'genuine remorse' and were at a low risk of reoffending.

Both also served five nights in custody, Michael Haycock at HMP Hewell and Karen Haycock at HMP Eastwood Park.

Recorder Atkins told the couple 'many people would love the luxury of having their mortgage paid - you did it by dishonest means'.

The judge also told them they were 'savvy enough to apply for whatever benefits are going' and said he hoped custody had proved a 'salutory experience' for both of them.

"It's honest, law-abiding citizens who were paying for your dishonesty. You are now paying it back, albeit slowly" he said.

However, the panel allowed the appeal against the sentence. Both appellants were served instead with an 18 month community orders to include 150 hours of unpaid work.

"I hope you go from here and never trouble the courts again" said Recorder Atkins.