Horsebox maker escapes prison

A horsebox manufacturer who took thousands of pounds from customers without providing the goods yesterday escaped jail after a court heard she was from a "hardworking and respected Norfolk family".

A horsebox manufacturer who took thousands of pounds from customers without providing the goods yesterday escaped jail after a court heard she was from a "hardworking and respected Norfolk family".

Claire Wales, 42, director of Highbarn Horseboxes Ltd, Hall Farm, Beachamwell, King's Lynn, pleaded guilty to three charges of dishonesty and one of theft when she appeared at Norwich Crown Court.

Recorder Stuart Bridge gave her a one-year custodial sentence suspended for two years and ordered her to complete unpaid work for the community.

But he warned Wales: "These offences were so serious that I was leaning towards imposing an immediate jail sentence."

Prosecutor Andrew Baxter told the court that Wales's first victim had been Robert Horton-Smith, after he paid £10,000 for a horsebox.

Two other victims paid £10,898 and £9,600 respectively in similar deals. Thousands of pounds are owed to other customers but these people are being treated as creditors rather than victims.

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When the victims chased up their orders they were told work was progressing well but in fact construction had not started on any of the boxes.

He added that Wales had obtained a lorry from a supply company which was on display to customers.

This was later sold but the company was never paid.

Mr Baxter said that since first appearing in court Wales, who now runs a new company Highbarn Equestrian, had paid back two of the customers and supplied a horsebox to the third.

She has attempted to pay back the supply company, only for the cheque to bounce.

Michael Clare, defending, said the company - which has since entered liquidation - had been experiencing financial difficulties at the time of the offences.

He said there had been no intention to steal the money but it had been a form of "unauthorised borrowing".

He added: "This was not somebody who set out to steal - this was somebody who got in a financial muddle.

"It was not somebody who schemed from the beginning to take something from somebody else - she did it to keep the company going."

Mr Clare said the new company was successful and Wales was hopeful of repaying all the money owed by its predecessor.

Mr Bridge said: "These were serious offences which resulted in considerable loss.

"You were engaged in what I regard as a serious and persistent fraud to keep the creditors at bay."

A confiscation hearing, to decide what money should be paid back to victims, will be held later this year.