FORMER soap star Ian Mercer has been convicted of benefit fraud in a fall from grace as dramatic as any depicted in the TV shows and Hollywood films he has appeared in.
Last Thursday – just days after being applauded by hundreds of fans at the world premiere of his latest film at California’s Disneyland Resort alongside movie stars Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz – the 49-year-old actor was forced to make an appearance in the rather less glamorous surroundings of South East Northumberland Magistrates’ Court.
His appearance at the Bedlington courthouse, the day before his new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, opened at cinemas nationwide, came after he was caught, thanks to an anonymous tip-off, claiming more than £2,300 worth of council tax benefit he was not entitled to due to undeclared income.
He was fined by magistrates after he admitted failing to notify Northumberland County Council of his change of circumstances, as required by the 1992 Social Security Administration Act.
Mercer, of Thompson Buildings in Sheepwash, played Gary Mallett in Coronation Street between 1995 and 2000.
He has since appeared in other popular TV shows including Heartbeat, A Touch of Frost, Cracker, Peak Practice, Doctors and Waking the Dead.
He has also landed roles in blockbuster films including 2009’s The Boat That Rocked, starring Bill Nighy, and 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World alongside Russell Crowe.
The actor had been living with his now-estranged wife and two daughters in a rented home at Bothal Barns in Pegswood and claiming council tax benefit on the property for a period of 12 months starting in 2008 prior to the breakdown of his marriage, the court heard.
Anna Barker, prosecuting on behalf of the county council, said an anonymous allegation had been made that Mercer had been working but failed to declare that fact.
He had also not declared the sale, for £200,000, of a property in his home town of Oldham, Lancashire, in January 2009.
Mercer and his wife were both interviewed and it was established that Mrs Mercer was not in any way to blame, said Mrs Barker.
Richard Graham, defending Mercer, said: “He has not just made arrangements for repayment but has repaid the full amount to the local authority.
“He fully co-operated in interview and has been fully open and honest.
“What appears to have been the problem is that Mr Mercer’s employment is very on and off.
“Often he’s signing on and signing off and signing on and signing off for employment and housing allowance.
“Unfortunately, Mr Mercer was separating from his wife and it wasn’t entirely amicable, and there was no communication going back and forth.”
Mr Graham said his client had thought that stopping his unemployment benefit claim meant that any other benefits he was getting would automatically be stopped too.
He said: “The council tax benefit is a deduction, so it wasn’t the case that he was actually receiving the money. It was simply a mistake on his behalf.
“Mr Mercer also informs me that during this period of time he has been liaising with the council to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
“The systems are now actually linked so this can’t happen again.
“He’s very sorry. He will be much more careful in the future.”
Mercer had started signing on the dole again two weeks ago, the court heard.
He said: “I’m in and out of work. I’ve been out of work since November.
“I consider signing on as an admission of failure, so I don’t immediately sign on.
“Sometimes I’ve been working abroad or work has been on and off, so sometimes my national insurance contributions have not been enough to make a claim.”
The bench said the case was serious enough to justify a community order, but that on this occasion Mercer would be fined £165, with a £15 victim surcharge and £100 costs.