County council recovers high school’s stolen money

Downham Market High School and Technology College. Picture: Ian Burt

Downham Market High School and Technology College. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

More than £54,000 has been recovered for a West Norfolk high school after a four-year pursuit of money stolen by a dishonest school business manager.

The case followed the conviction in 2008 of Julie Balls, Downham Market High School's former business manager, who admitted stealing £85,000 from school funds between 1999 and 2006.

Balls was jailed for 18 months and, following her conviction, Norfolk County Council pledged to recover the stolen money for the school.

More than £12,000 was paid back from the sale of Balls's property after police took action under the Criminal Justice Act following her conviction.

But with a significant amount still outstanding, the county council's finance department explored other avenues – including the possibility of reclaiming money from Balls's pension pot held in the Norfolk Pension Fund.

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'Our insurers suggested that changes in the local government pension scheme regulations made in 2008 meant that recovering money from Julie Balls's pension pot might be possible,' said Adrian Thompson, chief internal auditor at the county council. 'An immediate problem was that we had no precedent – it's not something that has been pursued in this way before by the council.

'With no previous cases to guide us and little experience in the field of fund recovery, it's fair to say we went forward cautiously.

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'We had to keep within the time limitations in law for bringing a case, and the action already taken by the police helped us.'

The painstaking work resulted in a case being brought to Norwich County Court in December, with a judgment ordering that because of Balls's gross misconduct, £54,586 of her pension fund must be paid to the governing body of Downham Market High School.

Mr Thompson added: 'It's a very satisfying result after all this time. For Downham Market High School, this will be a welcome boost for 2013.

'But there are also wider implications for the recovery of funds where there has been misconduct by a staff member who has funds in the local government pension scheme.

'I plan to share the knowledge and methodology we have developed to help other councils with the recovery of some of the millions of pounds lost to fraud each year nationally.'

Jon Ford, headteacher at Downham Market High School, said: 'The governors and I are extremely pleased with this outcome. It is a great result for the school, its students and staff.

'We can now move forward and concentrate all our efforts in the areas that we should, without the distractions of this case.'

Meanwhile Downham Market's county councillor, Shelagh Hutson, said: 'Punishment of offenders in cases like these should always include every effort to reclaim missing funds and I congratulate all involved in doggedly pursuing this matter to a successful conclusion.'

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