A Nigerian illegal immigrant has avoided jail despite falsely claiming £50,000 in benefits to pay off the people smugglers who got her into Britain.
Linda Okungowa, 36, of Sheffield, who arrived in the UK on a false passport 12 years ago, claimed the money in destitution and child benefits despite working under false identities. [above photo]
But the mother-of-three received a suspended sentence in an ‘amazing display of mercy’ after it emerged she had support from a church which was protecting her from committing more crime.
The decision by Judge Simon Lawler QC came five years after Okungowa was sent to prison for eight months for using false documents to obtain work while claiming £70,000 in benefits.
Okungowa arrived in Britain believing she would be able to train as a doctor, but instead became entrenched in a mounting debt cycle with the traffickers who helped her get in.
She said the smugglers kept increasing the amount they said she owed them and she was left so destitute her children were forced to walk 12 miles a day to school in Sheffield because the family could not afford the bus fare.
Okungowa also ended up working multiple jobs in a bid to keep up with the repayments.
Neil Coxon, prosecuting, said that after getting out of prison in 2011, she took on the identity of a friend in London while applying for work.
After getting several jobs in the care sector she asked the woman if the wages could be paid into her bank account and transferred to Okungowa.
Mr Coxon said Okungowa told the woman she could not be paid directly due to debts associated with her account.
Between July 2011 and August 2014, Okungowa had claimed £22,610 in destitution benefits, and £26,201 in child tax credits and working tax credits between June 2011 and January 2015.
Delighted: Ben Hudd, minister at The Ark church in Sheffield, which supported her, said the suspended sentence was an ‘amazing display of mercy’
At Sheffield Crown Court, Judge Lawler said the exceptional circumstances of the case meant he wouldn’t be sending her straight to prison.
He added: ‘I may be criticised because fraud from the public purse is common and everybody in this court knows usually the offender goes immediately to custody.
‘But in this particular case I can see no useful purpose to the public in sending you to custody. I hope you repay the trust the court has placed in you.’
Okungowa, who has three children aged one, nine and 11, said after the case: ‘I’m not proud of the things I have done but I have been given a chance.’
An investigation will now be carried out into Okungowa’s finances to see if she can pay any of the money back. She received an 18-month prison sentence suspended for two years.
Ben Hudd, the minister at The Ark church in Sheffield, which supported her, said: ‘It was a balance between justice and mercy. We saw an amazing display of mercy.
‘Although justice was done with the sentence, the judge had mercy on Linda because of all the things she has dealt with in her life. It was the perfect way forward.’