A Sheffield asylum seeker who fraudulently claimed almost £50,000 of benefits to pay back human traffickers who got her into the UK has been spared jail in ‘an amazing display of mercy’.
Mother-of-three Linda Okungbowa, aged 36 and from Woodseats, was given a suspended prison sentence at Sheffield Crown Court for claiming destitution and child benefits while working under false identities.
She was jailed for eight months in 2011 for using false documents to gain work while claiming around £70,000 in benefits - but despite her past offending Judge Simon Lawler QC said the circumstances on this occasion were different as she now has support from local Sheffield churchgoers who are protecting her from a return to further crime.
Following the case, Okungbowa said she had come to the UK in 2004 from Nigeria believing she would be training as a doctor - but instead became locked in an impossible cycle of paying back huge debts to criminals.
Okungbowa, aged 36, said after the case she had used the falsely claimed benefits to pay back the traffickers who kept increasing the amount she owed them and were threatening her family in Nigeria.
She said she was so destitute her children had to walk with her 12 miles to school in Sheffield each day as they couldn’t afford the bus fare, while she worked multiple jobs to try and keep up with her repayments.
Okungbowa, whose children are aged 11, nine and one, said: “I’m not proud of the things I have done but I have been given a chance.”
Ben Hudd, the reverend at The Ark church in Woodseats, 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.”
Judge Simon Lawler QC said the exceptional circumstances of the case - along with the extensive support now being offered to her by her local church in Woodseats - meant he could suspend the normally customary prison sentence for such offending.
He said: “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.”
Okungbowa entered the country illegally in 2004, travelling in on a passport in another’s name.
Neil Coxon, prosecuting, said that after getting out of jail following the 2011 conviction she took on the identity of an acquaintance from London when applying for work - going on to ask the woman if her work wages could be paid into her bank account before being transferred to Okungbowa.
He said Okungbowa had told the woman the wages couldn’t be paid directly to her as she had debts connected with her bank account.
Between July 2011 and August 2014, Okungbowa claimed £22,610.47 of destitution benefits, while between June 2011 and January 2015 claimed child tax credits and working tax credits of £26,201.56.
During this time she worked in several different caring jobs under false identities, including Moorend Care Home and Woodbank House Care Home.
Chris Aspinall, defending, said his client had to wait for a year to be sentenced after admitting the offences in 2015.
He said she had come to court on four occasions to be sentenced and said goodbye to her children in expectation of being sent to jail - only to be told the hearings were being postponed.
Part of the reason for the delay was the Crown Prosecution Service investigating whether the actual level of benefits paid to her had been over £150,000 rather than the £48,000 she had already admitted.
Her children are now aged 11, nine and one.
He said: “On each occasion, she has come to court to be sentenced she had to explain to the two older children and tell them she may not be coming home. Arrangements had to be made for them be looked after.
“On each occasion, she has had to say goodbye to her children.
“It is not her fault the prosecution didn’t get this right the first time.”
Mr Aspinall said during her offending up to 2014 she had come under the influence of ‘others that had come over from Nigeria and others in her family’.
He said she was now being supported by the local church to turn her life around.
“The extent of that support by the church is that they have paid the rent on her property for her and her children and continue to do so up to today and will do so until this case is concluded and she regains her liberty.
“This is a lady who has had difficulties in the past and rather unusual circumstances when she came to the UK and the pressure she was put under by the people she came into contact with.
“It is certain she will not offend again as the local community are fully behind her and supporting her and the children. They are there to advise and counsel her and steer her away from problems in the future.”
Judge Lawler sentenced her to 18 months in custody for two years and an investigation of Okungbowa’s finances will now take place to see if anyone of the money can be repaid.
He told her: “I hope you repay the trust the court has placed in you.”
Okungbowa had been arrested and had her bank account frozen when she was contacted by members of The Ark church in Woodseats in December 2014 who provided her with a Christmas hamper after her plight was highlighted to them.
She was facing having to move into a homeless shelter with her three children but church members helped pay her rent and buy her food, as well as keeping her away from further crime.
Okungbowa said she had come to the UK from Nigeria in 2004 believing she would be able to train as a doctor but had been told ‘lies’ by the traffickers who helped her enter the UK.
Her first child was born around a year after she arrived in the UK.
Okungbowa said the initial cost of travelling had been £50,000 but she is still being asked to make payments over a decade after arriving.
She said with the support of the church she now feels able to deal with the traffickers’ demands.
Ben Hudd, the minister at The Ark, said his family and other church members were going to become foster carers for Okungbowa’s children had she been sent to jail.
He said it had an extraordinary experience to be in court and see Okungbowa walk free from a prison sentence after the judge praised the work of churchgoers in turning her life around.
“For me, something God had asked us to do - to see that work in practice to transform her life in the way we saw is possibly the most fulfilling thing I have seen in ministry.
“You can’t top it.”