A BENEFITS cheat walked free from court after a judge heard how she was brutalised by her husband and "coerced" into claiming state hand-outs.

Caroline Foster claimed her husband was often absent from their home in South Bank, near Middlesbrough, but did give her money for their family.

Foster, 49, pocketed more than £50,000 in Income Support, housing benefit and council tax relief over eight years, Teesside Crown Court was told.

The court heard how she would not have been eligible for the money if she had declared that her working husband Anthony also lived with her.

Umza Khan, mitigating, said the grandmother was - and still is - "controlled" by her estranged partner, who comes from the travelling community.

"She clearly presents as a vulnerable individual," Miss Khan told the court. "She was coerced, to some degree, into acting the way she did.

"She was fully aware of the consequences and fully aware what she was doing was criminal . . . he has very much a controlling hand."

Foster, of Kier Hardie Crescent, South Bank, admitted three charges of making dishonest representations to obtain benefits at an earlier hearing.

Yesterday, she was given a 12-month prison sentence, which was suspended for two the next years, with supervision from the Probation Service.

The judge, Miss Recorder Hilary Manley, told her that she should use the help to "get your life together" and look for work to help pay back the debt.

Miss Khan said Foster was barely able to read and write, had not been accepted in the travelling community and had been "more than naive".

The barrister told the judge that holidays - including one in Turkey - had been Mr Foster's idea, and were for their grandchildren rather than her.