Mother of murdered Scarlett Keeling escapes jail over £20,000 benefits fraud

Fiona MacKeown was spared jail today for a £20,000 benefits fraud

Fiona MacKeown, pictured leaving court today, was spared jail for a £20,000 benefits fraud

The mother of murdered British teenager Scarlett Keeling wept with relief today as she was spared jail for a £20,000 benefits fraud.

The 46-year-old mother-of-nine dishonestly obtained £19,500 in child benefit payments from the taxpayer - even though her former partner Richard Keeling was paying three of the children, including Scarlett, voluntary maintenance payments.

Fiona MacKeown was branded 'dishonest' by a judge who said she had falsely claimed the payments over a four-and-a-half-year period.

Judge Graham Cottle said her personal mitigation had 'just' saved her from an immediate jail term.

He told her: 'Over a period of some four-and-a-half-years you received in excess of £51,000 from the Department of Work and Pensions, some of which you were entitled to.

'But the net loss to the department was £19,000 or thereabouts.'

Prosecutor Mark Worsley said she had filled in a claim form as a single parent but failed to say that she was receiving £350 a month in voluntary maintenance payments for three of her nine children from Scarlett's father.

Judge Cottle said her failure to disclose those payments was 'quite clearly dishonest as you now accept'.

Exeter Crown Court heard that she is paying back the money at £40 a month which Mr Worsley said will take her 36 years to pay back.

Judge Cottle said he had 'given weight' to her own personal tragedy with the rape and murder of 15-year-old Scarlett while on a family holiday in Goa, India, in March 2008.

Judge Cottle told the weeping defendant: 'It is also the case that you have a considerable number of dependent children.'

He said the two youngest children had last month lost their father Adam Foster who turned to drink after Scarlett's death.

The court heard that MacKeown gave the benefit money straight to the three children it was intended for.

She did not use the money herself and the judge said she paid the money to the three children 'in a way which was less dishonest in your eyes'.

MacKeown, who now lives with six of her children on a plot of land near Bradworthy, North Devon, said she will pay back the £19,000 by selling the five acre piece of land she lives on which is worth between £60,000 and £80,000.

fiona mackeown

Fiona MacKeown on her Devon property. She dishonestly obtained £19,500 in child benefit payments from the taxpayer

Judge Cottle jailed her for eight months, suspended for two years, after she admitted a single charge of dishonestly obtaining £19,400 of money transfers.

She was also ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid community work.

Mr Worsley said she had received £350 a month for three of her children with Libyan-born concrete contractor Mr Keeling when they split up shortly after Scarlett's birth.

He said she had numerous opportunities to tell the department about the maintenance payments but did not declare that information and signed the form.

In March 2008 the department started to investigate the payments after finding out that the family had been on the fateful holiday to Goa where Scarlett was raped and murdered.

He said the total paid out in benefits to MacKeown during this time was more than £51,000 but £19,000 was overpayments because of her dishonesty.

'The total overpayment is £19,500 which is currently being paid back at £40 a month which will take 36 years to pay all that back at that rate.'

Scarlett Keeling

Judge Cottle said he had 'given weight' to MacKeown's own personal tragedy with the rape and murder of 15-year-old Scarlett (pictured) while on a family holiday in Goa

Barrister David Sapiecha, defending, said she was 'open and candid' that she had failed to divulge the information.

'She said she did not consider it maintenance and allocated it to those three children.

'She herself did not use that money for household expenses but of course it was income, that was he choice and there was an element of dishonesty in that.'

He said she was 'an intelligent and articulate lady' and has six dependent children now aged between seven and fifteen.

He added: 'Her personal circumstances are troubled heaped on to tragedy in her life. She has shown amazing resilience in a straight forward manner.'

Mr Sapiecha said MacKeown is about to go out to Goa for the trial of two men charged in connection with Scarlett's death where she will be a witness.

The trip was delayed by the volcano ash drama but she is due to leave next week and he said: 'She is keen that the matter is fully investigated and in the right way.

'Recently the father of two of her children died and her youngest two are in mourning for him.

'She has some entitlement to a little mercy though she is not someone who was would ask for it herself. She leads a relatively simple life and is content to do so.'

As she left court, MacKeown said: 'I did not realise it was so serious, obviously I do now.

'I just want to get home to my children, they have been through enough. I will pay back this money and I am due to fly to Goa next week.'

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now