If a person is prosecuted for benefit fraud and found guilty by a court they will be subject to criminal sentencing. Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
Sentencing for benefit fraud depends on the type of benefit fraud and the seriousness of the offence:
- for a serious incidence of conspiracy to defraud, the maximum sentence is 10 years’ custody
- for a less serious offence, for example making false representation to obtain benefits, penalties can range from discharge to a lower-level fine
Find out more about the different types of sentence.
How is the sentence worked out?
Sentences are worked out by assessing culpability and harm.
Culpability is a measure of how planned the fraud was and the role of the offender in committing the fraud.
Harm is defined by the amount obtained or intended to be obtained by the fraud.
Factors increasing the seriousness of the sentence include:
- the claim was fraudulent from the outset
- the proceeds of fraud were used to fund a lavish lifestyle
- the fraud went on for a long time and involved multiple false declarations
- attempts were made to conceal or dispose of evidence
- damage was caused to a third party (for example as a result of identity theft)
Factors reducing the seriousness of the sentence include where the offender:
- has no previous or relevant convictions
- has shown remorse
- is of good character
- has a serious medical condition
- has a legitimate entitlement to benefits not claimed
- has a mental disorder or learning disability
- is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
The court will also take it into account if the offender co-operated with the investigation, making an early admission and/or voluntarily admitting the fraud, or was experiencing exceptional circumstances of financial hardship or pressure at the time the fraud was committed.
If the defendant pleads guilty, they will also receive a reduced sentence.
Find out more about how sentences for benefit fraud are calculated.