A sub-postmaster who stole more than £16,000 from the Post Office in order to keep her retail business afloat has been handed a suspended jail sentence.
Kathleen Stuart, who ran Longhoughton Post Office for 11 years, built up £80,000 worth of debt spread across a loan, three overdrafts and seven credit cards, Newcastle Crown Court heard this week.
And when she was unable to make the repayments, she started to dip into Post Office funds, initially repaying the money as and when she was able to.
However, she soon fell behind, and when, in September last year, the Post Office decided to carry out an audit, she was forced to come clean.
Stuart, 38, of Burnside, Longhoughton, told auditors the shortfall would amount to around £16,400, however it was found to be slightly more at £16,565.
When she was interviewed under caution, she said she had transferred funds into two bank accounts.
To cover her tracks, she had falsified the accounts and inflated cash records every four to five weeks, said Joanne Clough, prosecuting on behalf of the Post Office.
Stuart pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position of trust at a hearing before magistrates earlier this year, and was committed to the crown court for sentencing.
Sue Hirst, defending, said Stuart had taken over Longhoughton Post Office aged 26, despite having ‘very little’ business experience. “With hindsight she probably took on more than she could cope with.”
Stuart had hoped to sell the business for more than she had paid for it after making it a success, in order to pay off debts.
However the landlord refused to extend the lease on the building, preventing her from selling up.
“This wasn’t a case where she had her hand in the till so to speak,” said Miss Hirst. “She is extremely hardworking, caring and well thought of in her local community.
“A lady of previous good character, the shame of these proceedings have been a considerable punishment in itself. She has lost everything because of her actions, she has now been declared bankrupt.”
The community had rallied round Stuart since her arrest, Miss Hirst said, and she has found full-time work as a receptionist in a veterinary surgery, earning £900 per month as well as doing bar work, allowing her to repay £240 each month.
Sentencing Stuart to 12 months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, Judge John Evans said: “This is in many ways a very sad case.”
The judge also ordered her to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work and made a formal compensation order for £16,565.