A WIDOW who has devoted her life to her own animal charity will be banned from holding office as a trustee following her conviction for a council tax fraud.
Sheila Stewart, 64, who has been taking in animals for 45 years, failed to tell council officials her son had moved in to live with her.
That meant she was overpaid £301 in council tax benefit by Flintshire Council.
A court heard the local authority’s own policy meant that it was not in the public interest to prosecute her over such a low-level overpayment and a solicitor wrote personal letters to her spelling out her options, including taking a caution.
But when they were ignored, there was no option but to take her to court.
Stewart then failed to attend court so the case was proved in her absence and a warrant issued. Flintshire magistrates gave her a two-year conditional discharge and ordered her to pay £368 costs.
The overpayment had already been repaid, the Mold court was told.
Stewart confirmed her conviction meant that while she could continue as a member of the charity she founded, she could no longer act as a trustee.
Magistrates chairman Alistair Williams said Stewart was a woman of good character, her original claim for council tax benefit was genuine and “perfectly legitimate”, the period of overpayment was short and it would not have continued because she had been “truthful and entirely open” when she filled in the form for the following year.
Stewart, of Padeswood Lake Road, Padeswood, was charged that between April 2011 and April last year she failed to notify a change – that her son, Richard, was living with her – which would have affected the level of benefit.
Prosecutor Bryony Tomlinson said Stewart received the benefit as the sole occupant of the property.
She had failed to report her son had moved in, a change which should have been notified in writing as soon as possible.
Stewart attended for interview, confirmed her son had lived at Rhyl before splitting up with his girlfriend and had moved in from April 2011. He had stayed a couple of days a week previously but that was simply to help when she was ill.
Stewart was invited in to be cautioned but she had failed to keep appointments.
Miss Tomlinson said she wrote a personal letter explaining the options available to Stewart but there was no response. In the end the council had no option but to continue with the prosecution, she said.
Ceri Evans, defending, said it was a great shame that matters had gone so far down the line. It as an unusual case but her client did not challenge the conviction and wished to proceed to sentence.
Stewart would turn 65 this week. She and her late husband had established Capricorn Animal Rescue, which had been in operation for about 30 years.
“She is a founder member, she is the current chairperson and she is a trustee along with others,” Miss Evans said.
Stewart lived at the property where the animal rescue was based and where two full-time employees and some 20 volunteer workers were based.
She became a widow in 2009 where she lost her husband after a long battle with cancer.
That was when her son first became involved in helping her in an informal capacity.
Stewart herself suffered health problems, including chronic bronchitis, and she had suffered a mild heart attack.
There were more than 300 animals at the centre at any one day, Stewart was responsible for all the administration work and she had reported that her son was living there when she completed the form for the following year.
Stewart accepted she had been wrong in the first place and was ashamed it could not have been dealt with by a caution.
Miss Evans asked the court to take into account her previous good character, “her conduct in a well established charity and the good work that she had done over very, many years”.