A benefit cheat who defrauded the taxpayer for seven years by claiming she was unfit to work while she illegally pocketed cash as a chat line operator has been spared jail.

The Comet: She was given a 12-week prison sentence suspended for 12 months.She was given a 12-week prison sentence suspended for 12 months. (Image: Archant)

Sherry Douglas, of Ellis Avenue in Stevenage, claimed her epilepsy made her unfit to work and she received severe disablement allowance – now called employment and support allowance – between January 2009 and December last year.

The 34-year-old also claimed income support allowance between December 2007 and September 2011 and in September 2012 made a false statement to the Department for Work and Pensions to continue claiming the benefit.

Throughout this time she was working for chat line Excel Telemedia.

Appearing at Stevenage Magistrates’ Court today, Douglas was given a 12-week prison sentence which has been suspended for a year.

Chairman of the bench David Owen said: “These offences crossed the custodial threshold. There are three serious occasions where you gained from the public purse.

“They took place over seven years and you repeatedly failed to declare your true earnings.”

In total, Douglas falsely claimed £4,524.95 and has made repayments through her benefits, which she is still receiving, that have reduced this to £1,999.65.

Douglas suffers from learning difficulties, depression and borderline personality disorder and decided to sign up to the chat line after a friend suggested it was a good way to earn extra money.

She also took on the job because she wouldn’t have to leave the house, according to her solicitor Sally Jackson.

She said: “She did not earn very much. She wasn’t living the high life and used the money just to make ends meet. It only worked out as an extra £10 to £15 a week.

“Recently she has really turned her life around and now has a support worker and sees a councillor which has helped her move away from bad habits and have a much more stable life.”

The trial was delayed for several hours after Douglas’ solicitor tried to obtain a Section 11 Order under the Contempt of Court Act which would have prevented her from being named.

This was because Douglas was moved to Stevenage from London for her own protection around 10 years ago after appearing as a witness in a murder trial, and claimed in court that naming her could have put her in danger.

This was successfully challenged by the Comet after we showed proof that Douglas had posted a public profile on social media site Badoo which included her name, age, that she lived in Stevenage and several pictures of her.

Ruling on this decision, Mr Owen aid: “We place no factual restrictions on the reporting of proceedings. There is no credible threat to you and it is in the interests of open justice that this case goes ahead without any restrictions.”

The remaining money Douglas owes will not have to be repaid and her epilepsy means she cannot work, so the court could not impose a community order.

In addition to the suspended sentence, Douglas will have to pay £165 in court costs and a victim surcharge within the next 28 days.