One-legged man accused of benefit fraud as officials examine wrong leg
A one-legged man was falsely accused of fiddling disability benefit after officials examined his wrong leg.
Robert Punter has undergone a nightmare year of anxiety after being taken to court by benefits officials who told him he was not disabled enough to claim the allowance even though he was having his leg amputated.
The mix up occurred because the 63-year-old ex-trucker, whose left leg was shattered in a boyhood shotgun accident, also suffered a serious toe injury to his right foot.
He was prosecuted when officials found a letter in his medical file showing he had made a full recovery from this operation and accused him of lying about his condition.
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He is angry at being treated as a dole fiddler despite battling to overcome his disability and working for 47 years, often in excruciating pain.
Mr Punter, of Bushell Road, Newton Abbot, spent months waiting for his case to be heard at Exeter Crown Court where it was thrown out in less than five minutes.
He denied falsely claiming disability living allowance and Judge Francis Gilbert, QC, recorded not guilty verdicts no evidence was offered by the Department of Work and Pensions.
Mr Punter was wheeled into court by his wife Jean with a white bandage covering the stump of his left leg, which was amputated in January. The judge allowed him to remain in the well of the court because he could not get into the dock.
The case was dropped after defence solicitor Ann Bellchambers obtained a statement from Torbay Hospital consultant Patrick Loxdale confirming that Mr Punter had always suffered from a disability which entitled him to benefit.
After the case Mr Punter said the case arose from a simple misunderstanding.
His claim for disability benefit was based on the long-standing injury to his left leg, which had eventually led to the amputation.
The Department of Work and Pensions prosecuted him on the basis that he had claimed benefit in relation to the injury to his right foot, which had been treated successfully and healed.
He said: "This whole business has been a nightmare. I have been taken to court and accused of swinging the lead when the truth was the opposite.
"I suffered a very serious injury to my left leg in a shotgun accident when I was 12. At one stage it was touch and go whether I would survive.
"I never used it as an excuse not to work. I started in the old Leathercraft factory in Newton Abbot when I was 15 and then drove dumpers and tippers on building sites until I passed my HGV and became a lorry driver.
"I did that for 40 years until I suffered arthritis in my right foot which led eventually to me having an operation to fuse my toe.
"It was while I was in hospital I met someone from the Citizen's Advice Bureau who told me I was entitled to disability allowance even though I was planning to go back to work.
"After I was called in for interview and told I would be prosecuted my wife took photos of my left leg and sent them to the DWP but it made no difference.
"At the same time as this case was going through the system I was in a lot of pain from the left leg and went back to hospital where Mr Loxdale told me I had degenerative bone disease and would need an amputation.
"It took months to persuade them that I am disabled but in the end they only restored my benefit after my left leg was amputated above the knee."
The consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Torbay Hospital who wrote to Exeter Crown Court about mR Punter said the prosecution was "barking mad".
Patrick Loxdale, who amputated the 63 year old's lower left leg earlier this year, wrote a letter about his medical history to his solicitor.
In it he said:"Robert Punter suffered a devastating injury to his left leg at the age of 12 and was lucky not to lose his leg.
"When I first met him I was amazed to hear that he'd held a job down as a tipper driver for many years up until the age of 63, with plans to continue working until retirement age of 65.
"It was quite clear to me that he was a highly stoical individual who had minimised very significant orthopaedic problems in his left leg. I have witnessed over the years many patients with far more trivial problems who have gone to long lengths to maximise their symptoms so as to claim various benefits.
"The problem with his right foot in the late 1990s was largely co-incidental to the left leg issues in my opinion, but whilst he was undergoing surgical treatment for that his mobility would have been compromised further.
"However, even when his right foot had resolved successfully he had been left with major ongoing symptoms in his left leg, including loss of active movement, the likelihood of constant moderate to severe pain, potential difficulty with footwear and certainly limitation of walking distance.
"Clearly I don't have details of the prosecution case against Robert Punter but I can say without any shadow of doubt that this man coped with a very severe left leg injury from the age of 12 to 63, holding down a physically demanding job and , in my view, tolerating a great deal of pain and incapacity in the process.
"However, as someone who generally takes a relatively robust attitude to some patients' desires to claim benefits, I find the fact that Robert Punter is being pursued completely bizarre to the point of being barking mad.
"This, in my opinion, is a highly genuine man with an extremely significant orthopaedic problem who is actually an example of somebody who's got on with their life and held down a job under extremely difficult circumstances."
A Department of Work and Pensions spokeswoman said:"We cannot comment on individual cases.
"In this case the defendant's health deteriorated as the case was being progressed. In light of his deteriorating health it was not in the public interest for this case to continue."
She said she could not comment on the consultant's remarks and said it was a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision to review the case in court and offer no evidence.
She added:"Our fraud investigators present the best evidence possible, however, ultimately it's for the CPS to decide whether a prosecution goes ahead for benefit fraud. If an overpayment is suspected then we will seek to recover that as a civil matter."
Mr Punter said today he had been paid £28,000 over 12 years in disability allowance.
He said: "The DWP wanted me to pay back the money. It has been an absolute nightmare for my wife and me. The DWP were doing all this as I was having my leg off in February. I have been working since I was 15 and used to wear callipers and use crutches."