A SENIOR official of a North-East charity who helped herself to its funds has escaped a prison sentence because of a psychiatric condition.

Gail Bland, 43, was given a 12-month suspended sentence yesterday and was ordered to pay £12,000 compensation at £100 per month after she admitted theft.

Teesside Crown Court heard how Bland was appointed administrator of Hartlepool Alzheimer's Trust in 1995 and was placed in charge of its finances two years later.

Michael O'Neill, prosecuting, said that in her position of trust she took money from the organisation's petty cash and from fees paid by residents' families - diverting funds to cover up the shortfall.

It was only when she resigned in 1999 that a large deficiency in the funds, estimated at between £12,000 and £20,000, was uncovered.

Jonathan Walker, defending, described Bland, of Eastlea, Thornley, County Durham, as a woman of previously impeccable character.

As the financial officer, he said, she had been in a position where she was untrained, unsupervised and unassisted and found herself under considerable stress.

It was, he said, at her own request that the trust's finances were checked on her departure, a move she must have known would reveal the missing money.

The irony of the offence, he said, lay in the fact that Bland had raised huge sums of money for the charity by organising concerts, fairs and social evenings.

She realised she had made a horrendous mistake which she regretted deeply.

Mr Walker said Bland, a former chairwoman of Thornley Parish Council, had a history of psychiatric difficulties and a medical report was presented to the court.

Sentencing Bland, Judge Peter Bowers said he felt that by not sending her to prison immediately he was letting down Alzheimer's Trust patients.

But he added that, in view of her medical condition, he could not see any good in a custodial sentence.

However, he told her: "It is only by the skin of your teeth that you have escaped prison today."