Appeal judges jail former tycoon for 18 months over £1.75m fraud

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The Independent Online

A former High Street tycoon who admitted defrauding his company of £1.75m was jailed for 18 months by the Court of Appeal yesterday, which ruled that his original suspended sentence was "unduly lenient".

Stephen Hinchliffe, 53, from Dore, Sheffield, the now bankrupt former head of the Facia group, a retailer which collapsed in 1996, was not present in court to hear the three judges decree that he must surrender to police by Monday. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey in April to an offence relating to the misappropriation of £1.75m from the company. Judge Jeremy Roberts, who had previously indicated he would give a non-custodial sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, gave Hinchliffe a 15-month sentence suspended for two years. Authorities decided not to proceed with a further 20 charges, saving the estimated £10m cost of a trial.

Yesterday's appeal, heard by Lord Justice Rose, Mr Justice McCombe and Mrs Justice Cox, was brought by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, on behalf of the Serious Fraud Office, on the basis that the sentence did not match the gravity of the offence.

Hinchliffe had already served part of a five-year jail sentence - reduced to four on appeal - after being convicted of banking offences relating to the collapse of the Facia group.

At its peak, the group consisted of 850 shops and 8,000 employees working in businesses including Red or Dead and Sock Shop. Because of Facia's success, Hinchliffe owned mansions in Sheffield and London, had a collection of 50 classic cars and flew his own helicopter. Hinchliffe, who was described as "bankrupt and ruined'', was released on parole in January after serving two years of the sentence.

Giving yesterday's ruling, Mr Justice McCombe said: "We consider that this sentence was unduly lenient and the court must now interfere with the sentence passed."

He said the Court of Appeal must take in to account the element of double jeopardy - when someone faces sentencing twice - particularly in a case where an offender "had already served a term of imprisonment and will now have to return".

But the judge added: "Nevertheless, a further term of imprisonment is merited and we consider that an additional term should be one of 18 months, which we now impose, to run from the date from which he surrenders to custody. The total benefit to the offender was admitted to be £1.75m. Some of the relevant money was used to support an extravagant lifestyle, but not all of it."

A spokesman for the Serious Fraud Office said: "We were unequivocal in our view that the original sentence was unduly lenient and the comments made by the Appeal Court today are most helpful. They provide clarification for future cases on the way serious fraud should be sentenced."