A benefit cheat attempted to avoid doing unpaid work in the community on religious grounds.
Over several years mother-of-three Noreen Shah claimed more than £10,000 in benefits without disclosing up to £20,000, stashed in a secret bank account, to Watford Borough Council.
The 30-year-old “devout” Muslim pleaded guilty to eight charges of making a false statement to obtain Council Tax and housing benefits after a second Halifax account containing the cash came to light.
Shah, of Longspring, North Watford, has no previous convictions and was told she would not go to prison, but that the court was looking to impose a punishment in the form of a high level community order, or what used to be known as community service.
But Dacorum Magistrates Court’s bench, chaired by Sandra Caldwell, was informed that because of Shah’s religious beliefs the proposed community order could cause “difficulties” if she had to work alongside men.
Sohail Bashir, defending, said if the Hertfordshire Probation Service could guarantee his client an all-female environment she would willingly carry out any unpaid work.
The full-time mother, whose husband was in court to support her, is very active in the Watford community carrying out voluntary work especially in furthering the children’s Islamic education, said her defence.
Mr Bashir pointed out that even if the offence warranted a community penalty if there are special circumstances, as in this case, the court can impose a different sentence, and recommended giving his client a conditional discharge.
He said: “She accepts she will be punished but because of her religious views this may cause difficulties by placing her working on a manual basis with other people that are male.
“If it was female only that would mean she would be able to do it, but probation won’t say that she will be put in an environment that has females only doing unpaid work.”
The report also recommended a curfew, but the court was told that was not “appropriate” with the Muslim festival of Ramadan approaching.
Mr Bashir said there would be nighttime activities in the local mosque that she would miss out on. He also said supervision by probation was not the right sentence because it was her first offence and there was little risk of her reoffending.
After retiring to deliberate chairman of the bench Mrs Caldwell sentenced Shah to a 12-month community order with 120 hours unpaid work, and awarded prosecution costs of £550.
“We are satisfied your offending is serious enough for a community penalty,” she said.
Rashid Choudhrey, one of the trustees of the Watford Mosque attended by the defendant, said after the case he knew nothing in the Islamic faith to prevent Shah carrying out unpaid work alongside men.
“Islam does not forbid her. My understanding is that if you commit a crime, you take the punishment,” he said.
“If you are that religious you should not commit the crime anyway. If you are that God fearing, why would you want to take money away from other people that need it?”
He added: “I think I can understand some part of it. If she was asked to go and work in a swimming pool or something some ladies might not appreciate that, but if they are offered ordinary work that would be OK.
“I suppose any woman may have concerns. It does not matter which religion they are. It depends what they ask her to do.
“If they ask her to go to a men’s club, or something, I can understand why she would not want to do that.
“But if they are given community service to clean a park or go and look after the elderly or children, there is nothing wrong with that.
He said Shah’s reticence may have “cultural” rather than religious foundations.
“There is nothing wrong with working alongside men as long as those people treated her respectfully.
“Having said that I think it is more a cultural thing.
“It depends how you have been brought up and where you come from.”
He added that a curfew would have been an ideal sentence as Ramadan “like being on a curfew anyway”.
Steve Johnson-Proctor, assistant chief officer of Hertfordshire Probation Service confirmed finding a suitable placement “would not be a problem”.
“We would assess anyone regarding what placement to put them on.
“We have a range of unpaid work, which would be suitable to a variety of diverse needs and if that includes religious needs that will be taken into account.”