A WIDOW who claimed almost £81,000 in benefits she was not entitled to has dodged prison – for the good work she has done helping people.

A judge said it was also "hugely significant" that Gillian Edwards, 62, had repaid every penny since the 12-year fraud was discovered.

Edwards inadvertently landed herself in trouble by telling the truth to the authorities when she bought a home with a new partner.

She had been living with the man for more than a decade, but did not declare that to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Teesside Crown Court heard that she continued to claim widowed mother’s allowance and widow’s pension between 2002 and 2014.

The claim was originally legitimate as she brought up three children alone, but Edwards should have declared her new relationship and living situation, the court heard.

The judge, Recorder Euan Duff, said it was “a terribly sad thing” to see the special needs education worker in the dock for the first time in her life.

He imposed an eight-month jail term, suspended for 18 months, and told Edwards: “I’m perfectly sure that you will resume the creditable life which you’ve led. I’m perfectly sure you’ll not be back again.”

Edwards, of Fordwell Road, Stockton, admitted two charges of failing to notify a change in circumstances at an earlier hearing, and faced a possible prison sentence of up to two-and-a-half years.

After the fraud came to light more than three years ago, she told investigators that she did not regard her and her partner as formally together until they bought a house.

Alex Bousfield, mitigating, said Edwards had held down a job providing support for people with special needs, and provided the court with a bundle of glowing references.

Mr Bousfield said: “Clearly a lot of people have thought a lot of her over the years. She’s done a lot of good work for a lot of people, and is not inherently a nasty or vindictive or problematic person in any way.

“She has done everything she can to put matters right. It’s an enormous sum of money to find in a short period of time. It’s not been possible without the help of her partner, who has been able to put those funds in place."

Mr Recorder Duff told Edwards: "You’ve quite clearly led a perfectly respectable proper life doing very good work for other people.

"I'm sure as soon as you walk out of this court, you will resume that.

“What is hugely significant is the totality of the public money paid to you has been repaid.

“Ultimately the public have got back the money which they ought not to have been deprived of in the first place."