Going… going… gone. When is a contract formed at auction?
When Sir Cliff Richard penned the lyrics to Summer Holiday in 1963 he could not have anticipated that the prospect of “no more working for a week or two” would be tested to its limits by some greedy holidaymakers. Whereas most of us are willing to splash a little cash to enjoy a few weeks on a sunny beach, and consider it a good investment of time and money, it seems that a few dishonest folk see it as an opportunity to make a buck by scamming their travel operator.
On Friday, at Liverpool Crown Court, Deborah Briton and her partner Paul Roberts learnt the hard way that travel operators are serious about addressing holiday sickness fraud. This couple tried to claim £20,000 in compensation from Thomas Cook, alleging that their children had become ill on their family holidays to Mallorca in 2015 and 2016. Their fraud against the tour operator became unstuck when Briton posted on social media after the holiday in June 2015: "Safely home after two weeks of sun, laughter, fun and tears. Met up with all our lovely holiday friends who made our holiday fab." A post after returning from the second holiday in July 2016 read: "Back home after a fantastic holiday, my favourite so far. Thanks to our holiday family for being part of it, plenty of holiday memories made to treasure."
Interestingly, this case was brought by Thomas Cook as a private prosecution. In England and Wales most criminal trials are prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service. However, any individual or organisation has the right to commence criminal proceedings as a private prosecutor under section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, which is exactly what the travel company did on this occasion.
A 2016 report produced by the University of Portsmouth which considered fraud and the ‘justice’ systems that are being used to address it revealed that estimates by the insurance industry have suggested the size of the problem amounted to over 139,000 detected dishonest claims each year, which costs around £1 billion, with a further £2 billion of undetected fraud. 
Insurance fraud is clearly a problem that needs to be tackled. However, the traditional law enforcement agencies have suffered substantial cutbacks in recent years, which means they no longer have the resources to dedicate to certain types of crime. In that climate of budgetary constraints it is easy to see why the use of private prosecutions by tour operators and insurance companies is firmly on the rise.
Thomas Cook Group (TCG) are one organisation who are seeing the benefit of accessing this route to justice. TCG forewarn that fraudulent conduct will not be tolerated and they will take action when it is identified. On their website they state:
This situation cannot go on. As Thomas Cook, it is our responsibility to protect our customers from the actions of a criminal minority. That means making sure our customers understand the risks involved in submitting false claims.
Briton, was sentenced on Friday to nine months in prison after admitting four counts of fraud. Roberts, was jailed for 15 months. It seems to me that when they reflect on their actions from the confines of their respective prison cells the sentiment expressed by Sir Cliff of “Fun and laughter on our summer holiday, no more worries for me or you” will be a very, very long way from their minds.
Melinka leads the team at Kingsley Napley responsible for conducting regulatory and private prosecutions. She also a founding member of the UK’s first Private Prosecution Association.
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