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High Court rejects appeal over failure to convict benefit claimant for non-notification

Coventry City Council has lost an appeal over a decision by magistrates not to convict a student for non-disclosure of a change in circumstances that affected his housing benefit entitlement.

In Coventry City Council v Vassell [2011] EWHC 1542 (Admin), the justices at Coventry Magistrates’ Court found Neil Vassell not guilty on 1 September 2010 of one offence under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 as amended.

The defendant had claimed for jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit at Cofa Court Job Centre in January 2005.

When he became a student in October 2007, he notified the Job Centre but not Coventry City Council separately. Vassell was subsequently overpaid £6,215.95 in housing benefit.

Vassell was prosecuted for failing – between 29 October 2007 and 5 July 2009 – to give prompt notification of the fact that he had begun to receive student finance by way of a supplementary grant, student loan and bursary.

The local authority argued that Vassell knew that his changed circumstances would affect his entitlement to housing benefit and council tax benefit, and that this was contrary to section 112(1A) of the 1992 Act.

The magistrates found him not guilty. They concluded that:

  • Vassell did not notify the council of his move to full-time education as a change in circumstance
  • Vassell believed he had informed the relevant authorities in respect of housing benefit and CTB, by giving the notice to Cofa Court that he did give
  • The failure of the DWP office’s staff to advise him of the need to inform the council’s housing department of the change led him to believe he had discharged his responsibilities to notify the change correctly
  • The benefit claim forms were not sufficiently clear as to how the duty to notify a change of circumstance must be discharged.

Summarising the provisions relevant to the appeal, Mr Justice Hickinbottom said: “A housing benefit or CTB claimant will only be guilty of an offence under section 112(1A) if the prosecution prove to the criminal standard that he failed to give prompt notification of a change in his circumstances that he knew affected his entitlement to such benefit, to the relevant local authority at the office notified to him on the benefit claim form as the office designated for the receipt of such benefit claims.”

The High Court judge ruled that Coventry City Council was unable to prove that at the relevant time, Vassell knew that his move into full-time education would (rather than could) affect his entitlement to housing benefit or CTB.

He agreed with the magistrates that the requirements of section 112(1A) were not met, and they were right to acquit Vassell ont hat basis.

Mr Justice Hickinbottom said: “On the basis of the construction of section 112(1A) above, the hurdles that the prosecution have to surmount to convict a benefit claimant under that section may appear to be considerable.

“If a claimant fails to notify a change of circumstances, there are other substantial sanctions that might be imposed upon him, with less formidable criteria: for example, recovery of overpayments, or administrative penalties. However, section 112(1A) is a criminal provision and, in those circumstances, it should not be surprising that Parliament intended the matters which have to be proved to be strict.”

Philip Hoult

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