UK

Man jailed for sharing father's industrial compensation

John Kennedy
Image caption John Kennedy says he cannot get work because of his time in prison

John Kennedy followed his father's wishes when he died, sharing the money from a compensation payout with the rest of the family, but he ended up in prison as a result.

John Kennedy's father, who had the same name, died of asbestosis in 2001 and his son believes the compensation that came through after he died, was awarded as a recognition of the time they missed out on with him.

But what Mr Kennedy decided to do with the money, with the agreement of his family, turned into his "living nightmare", he tells BBC Radio 4's You and Yours.

His father had been a joiner at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead where he worked with asbestos, inhaling the dust and fibres which would kill him.

In the months leading up to his death, his wife Connie began to show the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and she was diagnosed that same year.

Twelve months on, Connie was admitted to a care home, and because she had little savings and no property, her care was funded by the local authority, Liverpool City Council.

"My father didn't leave a will, but before he died he knew that something was wrong with Mum, and he knew it was dementia," says Mr Kennedy.

"Dad said if anything was paid by Cammell Laird, it should be shared evenly between the family - his three sons and grandchildren".

By 2005 when £90,000 was paid in compensation for the industrial injury, Mr Kennedy had legal control over his mother's affairs through a lasting power of attorney.

It fell to him to take charge, he says, because apart from him, every member of his family - his parents and two brothers - were very deaf. He had handled all the official dealings for his family, he says, from the age of about 12.

Family meeting

When the compensation came, Connie Kennedy's dementia was advanced. She was bedridden and had no awareness of where she was and could no longer recognise her own sons.

Image caption John Kennedy is the only one of his family who is not deaf

"Mum had no use for money by then," Mr Kennedy recalls. "She couldn't even handle £10.

"We had a family meeting when the money came through and we agreed that I should open a separate building society account in my name and that we should each receive £30,000 to be shared between us and our children as Dad had stipulated before his death."

I gave £10,000 to each of my two sons and kept £10,000 for myself."

But this decision led him to be charged with benefit fraud on the grounds that his mother was still living and her share of the inheritance should have been given to the council to help pay for her care.

He insists he never knew that was the case and acted in all innocence and in good faith, fulfilling his father's dying wish.

"I never made any attempt to conceal the payments," he insists. "I opened the account in my own name".

He pleaded not guilty at Liverpool Crown Court but was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.

Money spent

He was eventually jailed not for the benefit fraud, but because he could not repay £58,000. This was ruled to be the sum of his personal benefit from the crime under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, even though he only kept £10,000 for himself.

"I couldn't repay the money," he explains," because by then the money had been spent."

Although a category D prisoner, he was sent to Wandsworth jail. "It was the worst experience of my life," he says.

"On the second day I saw a prisoner in front of me queuing for lunch like me, knocked out in front of me, struck down in a random attack.

"I didn't get a change of clothes for three weeks. I didn't see sunlight or the sky for 10 days."

He was released after serving four months of a nine month sentence, but the prison term does not cancel his debt of £58,000, which is accruing interest at the rate of £400 a month.

Mr Kennedy has a degree in literature and philosophy and a master's degree in screenwriting. He has worked most if his life in arts and education, but he says that with a criminal record, his prospects of employment are now extremely slim.

Each month he pays a nominal sum from his benefits towards his debt.

He wrote to You and Yours presenter Winifred Robinson from Wandsworth prison and was interviewed on the programme following his release.

He believes the law under which he was jailed should be changed.

"The Proceeds of Crime Act was designed to target the Mr Bigs of the drugs world but it is being used against ordinary people and I just think it is so unjust," he says.

Although from Liverpool, Mr Kennedy swapped his housing association flat there for a council flat in Peckham in London, to be near his youngest son. His mother Connie remains in the care home, close to death.

After his prosecution the family successfully applied for her fees to be met by the NHS because Connie Kennedy needs continuing care of the kind usually given in hospital.

"The irony is that had we known she qualified for continuing NHS care I would never have been charged," he says.

"What has happened has ruined my life and yet in court, all that was mentioned was money, but to us it was never about money. It was recognition for the family for the loss of my father's life.

"We'd seen him being choked to death from asbestosis. I'm not placing a price on my father, if I could have him back today I would.

"He missed so much of life. He never saw his first great-grandchild. He missed out on a lot of what we would have done as a family.

"I only did what the family wanted me to do. If either of my brothers had had the power of attorney, they would have been the one in jail."

John Kennedy's story featured on Radio 4's You and Yours on Thu 19 Jan 2012 and can be heard online at the above link.

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