Judge likens case to 'The Hangover' as woman facing welfare fraud recounts drunken Las Vegas wedding

Judge likens case to 'The Hangover' as woman facing welfare fraud recounts drunken Las Vegas wedding
Michelle Burke leaving a previous court sitting; Picture: Courtpix

By Tom Tuite

A mother-of-four on trial for unlawfully obtaining almost €30,000 in one parent family social welfare payments has claimed her drunken Las Vegas wedding was just “a bit of fun” and she did not know it was legal in Ireland.

Hearing the case at Dublin District Court, Judge John Brennan compared it to the 2009 comedy film The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper, about the misadventures of a group of men at a bachelor party in Las Vegas in the United States.

Michelle Burke, 39, from Cappagh Road, Finglas, Dublin 11 is being prosecuted by the Department of Social Protection.

The total alleged fraud was €29,773 and it was the prosecution's case that she got married and failed to notify the department while claiming the one parent family payment between November 2010 and August 2012, which she denies.

The trial heard she had been in receipt of the one parent family payment since 1997.

Social welfare inspector Helen O’Reilly told prosecuting counsel Gareth Robinson BL that the accused was getting €317 a week. Only people who have children but do not have support of a partner were eligible, however, if they got married or entered into a civil partnership their entitlement ended, she said.

She told the trial that in 2011 and in 2013 reviews were conducted and Ms Burke was sent forms inquiring if her circumstances had changed but she signed declarations that she had not got married nor was she living with a partner.

However, the social welfare inspector told Judge John Brennan there was a suspicion she may have been cohabiting with a partner. An investigation commenced and the inspector was able to obtain a copy of a marriage certificate from the United States.

She agreed with Mr Robinson it confirmed Ms Burke got married to her current partner on Nov. 6, 2010, at the Holywood Wedding Chapel, Las Vegas, in Nevada. The Clark County marriage certificate had her date of birth and address as well as that of the man she married.

The court heard the certificate was a public document and the marriage was recognised in Ireland. Her payment was stopped and she was interviewed but told the inspector she did not think that the marriage was legal. She also said her partner, who was not the father of her children, paid tax and then lived at a different address in Dublin 1.

The inspector told defence counsel Matthew Holmes BL the marriage was legally binding for the purpose of social welfare. She also agreed the defendant and her partner were now claiming a family allowance.

Following legal submissions over the validity of the US marriage documents furnished to the court, Judge Brennan accepted the certificate was evidence of what was recorded.

In the witness box, the mother-of-four claimed she had gone to America for a few days with a group of 16 or 17 for a thirtieth birthday party for her brother’s friend and stayed at the Stratosphere Hotel.

Questioned by her barrister about the marriage ceremony she claimed “we just thought it was funny” and it was for “for a laugh”. “I honestly didn’t think it was legal,” she said.

Asked why she did not remember much about the ceremony, she replied, “because we were drunk”. In cross-examination, she told the prosecuting barrister, “they were walking up and down the strip a few times and saying do you want to get married? We thought it’d be funny like.”

She also said she could not remember much about the ceremony performed by a Rev. Dennis Kovarik but she agreed the certificate had her address and date of birth as well her partner’s details, and that they had to hand over their passports beforehand.

Ms Burke repeatedly told the court she did not mention it to the social welfare office because she did not think she was really married. She also agreed the marriage cert had the names of the country clerk and the witnesses at the wedding.

She also said her partner had not been living with her at the time of the alleged offences.

Judge Brennan commented that either the Hangover 1 or Hangover 2 film came to mind while the defence counsel remarked that it reminded him of some sitcoms.

Mr Holmes also asked the judge to note the woman’s evidence and the legal principle of an “honest though unreasonable belief”. He argued that at all times the woman has stated that it was her belief that the marriage was not legal and “an innocent act is always a defence”.

The judge remarked that joking aside it was a serious matter as he adjourned the case to consider legal submissions from the prosecution and the defence.

The case resumes in May.

The charges are under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act. In the district court the offence can result in a fine of up to €2,500 and a possible six-month sentence in addition to having to repay the social welfare authorities.

The social welfare authorities also have a mechanism to continue to recoup money even after a case has been finalised.

The court can only consider leaving defendants convicted of benefit fraud without a criminal record if all the money has been repaid.

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