Benefit Fraud is an either way offence with a maximum sentence at Magistrates` Courts of six months custody and/or £5,000 fine. Tried on indictment under various Acts at the Crown Court the maximum sentence is ten years. Until about a couple of years ago magistrates` benches were usually advised to decline jurisdiction if the sum involved was over £20,000. Indeed as recently as October last year at Hendon Magistrates` Court in London a case was sent to the Crown Court when the sum involved was £35,000. At my own court within that self same period of one year we have been advised by prosecutors on behalf of the Secretary of State that Magistrates can accept cases where up to £60,000 is the alleged sum involved. Our L/As appear to have received similar advice.
It was therefore interesting to read the case of a mother who was sentenced after trial to three months custody [suspended] at Crown Court when the amount obtained was less than £20,000. Not having been there I would hazard a guess that it would seem likely that this defendant elected trial by jury. Defendants take such legal advice for one reason; the belief or hope that they would be more likely to be found not guilty. I do not think they fully consider that if found guilty they might receive a greater sentence than at the lower court. If that were the case and being unaware of all the facts I would stick my neck out and suggest that her sentence was indeed probably more severe than that which would have been handed down at least in my court.
Because two cases are perhaps similar but not the same I suppose it is difficult to analyse the difference in sentences for similar cases in either way offences such as above. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that it is thought that in comparisons such as I have described judges do tend to impose heavier sentences than are imposed in Magistrates` Courts. If that were so would defendants follow the maths or would they would they hope for acquittal? And of course the temptation of legal aid at Crown Court might be attractive to some.