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 was forced to make an appearance in the rather less glamorous surroundings of South East Northumberland Magistrates’ Court.
His appearance at Bedlington, the day before his new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, opened at cinemas nationwide, came after he was caught claiming more than £2,300 worth of council tax benefit to which he was not entitled.
He admitted failing to notify Northumberland County Council of his change of circumstances.
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 Shameless, Heartbeat, A Touch of Frost, Cracker, Peak Practice, Doctors and Waking the Dead.
He also landed roles in blockbuster films such as The Boat That Rocked and 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, claiming council tax benefit for 12 months starting in 2008 prior to the breakdown of his marriage.
Anna Barker, prosecuting, said an anonymous allegation had been made that Mercer had been working, but failed to declare it.
He had also not declared the £200,000 sale 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.
Richard Graham, defending, 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 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 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.
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.”
Mercer was fined £165, with a £15 victim surcharge and £100 costs.