PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Judge says there should be no retrial

STEVE RENDLE
steve.rendle@age.co.nz

A three-year nightmare is over for two Featherston pensioners who have had their convictions for benefit fraud thrown out on appeal.

David Paul Longhurst, 68, and Stephanie Mary Whitehead-Longhurst, 70, were convicted in April 2018 on charges laid by the Ministry of Social Development, of wilfully omitting to declare almost $150,000 of income, including sales on Trade Me, while they received benefits.

The couple live with their adult son and daughter who are both on invalids’ benefits.

Money paid by their children as a contribution to the costs of running the household was also cited as undeclared income in the original trial.

Throughout the case, the couple repeatedly denied knowingly doing anything wrong.

More than a year on, Justice Francis Cooke, in the High Court at Wellington, quashed the convictions.

“I accept that the findings of dishonesty, and resulting convictions, were unfair. In the circumstances there should be no retrial.”

But the couple have already served terms of community detention, wearing electronic monitoring bracelets – Longhurst for four months and his wife for two months.

“I have watched her age in front of me,” he told the Times-Age on Wednesday.

“She had to wear that ankle bracelet – that was mortifying for her.”

Longhurst said the trauma of the trial and sentence had turned his wife into a virtual recluse, but the Featherston community had been supportive.

“We’ve been here for 31 years. I didn’t hear one negative comment after the case,” he said.

“Sometimes, I would introduce myself as ‘one of the Featherston fraudsters’ as a joke, but it has been three really bad years which nearly destroyed our family and of course we have completed the sentences as well.”

And the appeal almost didn’t happen.

Longhurst said he rang around 10 lawyers in an effort to find someone prepared to take on an appeal case, and had to apply for leave to appeal outside the normal deadline.

He was represented by Andra Mobberley, and his wife by Chris Tennet.

The couple were charged on the basis that MSD believed Longhurst had received $123,521.91 over the course of seven and half years but had not declared this as income.

The money was generated by Longhurst acquiring and doing up vehicles, chainsaws, and drum kits, and selling them on Trade Me.

In his judgement, Justice Cooke said: “Expert accounting evidence indicated that taking into account his expenses it was unlikely that he had made any profit from these activities.”

While the trial judge had correctly concluded that it did not matter if he had made a profit, Longhurst should have been challenged on this.

“He gave evidence that he did not understand that his activities had to be disclosed. He needed to be directly challenged on this in cross-examination, and the essential reasons why the judge did not accept his evidence should have been raised with him. That did not occur.”

Justice Cooke said that with Whitehead-Longhurst, “the position is even clearer”.

“She did not receive the relevant income in her own bank account. If she was to be convicted for failing to disclose her husband’s income, it would be necessary to cross-examine her on the basis that she knew he was receiving it, and she knew that it had to be disclosed.

“It was never put to her in cross-examination that she knew either of these things. It was unfair for the judge to find that she was dishonest on that basis.”

Longhurst said the case had felt like “a machine, grinding on and on”.

“Living in a small town made it hard for us, especially my wife.”

Longhurst was originally charged with misleading a social welfare officer, as well as five counts of fraud.

Whitehead-Longhurst was charged with misleading a social welfare officer.