A WOMAN defrauded Kirklees Council out of more than £2,000 in benefits - while working for the authority.
Sarah Hirstle, 42, worked for Kirklees Direct and advised callers on revenues and benefits issues.
But she herself falsely claimed £2,915 in housing benefit. Hirstle, of Water Lane in Middlestown, Wakefield, pleaded guilty to five counts of making false statements at Huddersfield Magistrates' Court.
She was sentenced to a 12- month community order, with 40 hours of unpaid work.
Carol Holberry, prosecuting for Kirklees Council, said the charges related to Hirstle's former address - 3, Heaton Hall Farm in Kirkheaton.
Housing benefit was being claimed in the name of her aunt, Jean Mayer.
Mrs Mayer and her husband had lived in Zimbabwe, but due to political unrest they had had their assets seized.
Mr Mayer, who is from Zimbabwe, stayed in the country but Mrs Mayer returned to England and stayed with Ms Hirstle.
Mrs Holberry said a form was received - allegedly from Mrs Mayer - on November 3, 2005, stating that she was living at the property and she paid £55 a week in rent to her niece.
The form asked for benefits to be backdated to September 2005.
Mrs Mayer had signed the form, but had no part in filling it in.
On November 14 2005, Hirstle sent a letter to Kirklees Council, saying that Mrs Mayer had been liable to pay rent since September 17 2005.
On November 18 2005, an accommodation form was submitted, allegedly signed by Mrs Mayer.
However, it was later discovered that Hirstle had signed the form.
Housing benefit was granted, but in March 2006, Kirklees Council benefits officers said they wanted to review it.
They arranged to see Mrs Mayer on March 29, but this appointment was cancelled by Hirstle.
On May 15 2005, Hirstle provided more documents - including bank details and pension credits - to the council indicating that Mrs Mayer was still living at the house.
When officers visited the property, Hirstle told them her aunt was away on holiday in Portugal.
Officers visited neighbours, who said Mrs Mayer did not live at the house.
Hirstle's mother, Rita Wood, told officers that Mrs Mayer was her sister and that she had stayed with Hirstle for three weeks after arriving in Britain in September 2005.
After that, she had stayed with Mrs Wood and later moved to Portugal.
Hirstle was called in for interviews with benefits officers. She admitted making the false statements.
Hirstle had not spent any of the £2,915 she claimed and has paid it all back to the council.
Magistrates heard that at the time of the fraud, Hirstle had been suffering problems in her marriage.
She was worried that she was totally dependent on her husband and his mother for a place to live.
Hirstle, who is now divorced, also wanted to give their two children - aged 19 and 16 - a choice about who to live with.
Hirstle, who is a trained riding instructor with the British Horse Society, had been planning to emigrate to New Zealand with her son and start a new career in the equestrian field.
However, her conviction means she can longer pursue the idea.
Magistrates heard that Hirstle suffers from depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
However, they decided that if she was well enough to search for full-time work, she was well enough to do community work.
She was also ordered to pay £150 in court costs.