A GAMBLING addict who stole thousands of pounds from a community rugby league club, which meant youth teams had to be disbanded, has avoided jail.

Jennifer Morrison “rinsed” Haydock Warriors of more than £27,000, between 2018 and 2022 while acting in the voluntary role of treasurer at the club, Liverpool Crown Court heard.

Theft made up of 'hundreds of dishonest withdrawals'

Her thieving was made of hundreds of “dishonest withdrawals” from the club’s accounts.

While agreeing Morrison’s culpability was high with the thefts occurring “over a long period of time” and signified a “breach of a high degree of trust”, judge Recorder Kendrick Horne said there was “very considerable mitigation” and suspended Morrison’s prison sentence.

The court heard she had taken steps to pay some of the money back, with £27,353.45 the “net” sum stolen from the club.

Morrison, of Fosters Road, Haydock, had pleaded guilty to theft when she appeared before Liverpool, Knowsley and St Helens Magistrates' Court last month.

At today’s (Friday, March 22) sentencing hearing, prosecuting barrister Chris Hopkins told the court that Morrison, 48, had been treasurer at the club since around 2017.

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“Between January 2018 and December 2022 she stole £27,353.45 belonging to the club,” he said.

“A brief examination of the bank statements shows there must have been hundreds of individual thefts”. He said these saw money “transferred to the defendant’s own bank account” or “Paypal transactions” to “gambling sites”.

The court was told “the club benefits children in the local area” and is “an important resource in the community”.

Mr Hopkins said that Stephen Howarth, who is now chairman at Haydock Warriors, had “noticed a lot of talk about the club having no money".

He added: "It seems there was a problem of subs not being paid by some. The loss of funds led to teams being disbanded which was down to the defendant stealing."

Mr Hopkins said that as chairman Mr Howarth asked Morrison “for access to the club bank accounts” but she “made excuses”.

In December 2022, he went to the bank and although they “couldn’t allow him access” to the accounts he was told of a “potential problem”.

When he was able to see the bank statements, Mr Howarth saw the club was “£8,000 overdrawn”.

He noticed irregular transactions including an excessive payment of £300 for selection boxes and transactions for stationery and “fundraising” with “money gong out the account”, meaning “it couldn’t have been fundraising”.

Mr Hopkins said when Mr Howarth confronted the defendant she said she “couldn’t discuss it due to her mental health”.

Morrison later “admitted the theft” and “said she had a gambling addiction and would pay it back”.

Morrison was arrested by police in August 2023.

The court heard that the thefts had led to “harm” to the children who “missed out on the benefits” of being at the club and also “to the club more generally” and that it had “gradually eroded trust in the community and caused teams to pull out”.

St Helens Star: Morrison was given a suspended sentence at Liverpool Crown CourtMorrison was given a suspended sentence at Liverpool Crown Court (Image: St Helens Star)

Morrison was 'desperate due to gambling addiction'

Defending Morrison, Rebecca Smith said her client, who has no previous convictions, had “strong personal mitigation” and is “thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed and disappointed in herself”.

She said Morrison’s thefts arose “due to gambling addiction” from which she suffered following “post-natal depression” when her youngest son was born.

Ms Smith added: “She has taken positive steps” to address her addiction and has “disabilities and health conditions” and has a degenerative disease which will require an operation in future.

Ms Smith said: “She knows what people think of her and knows what the wider community thinks of her and the stigma attached” to the offence.

Judge suspends sentence due to 'considerable mitigation'

Passing sentence, judge Recorder Horne noted that Morrison had “very considerable mitigation” and that “you were desperate because of your addiction to gambling”.

He said: “I’m satisfied it was gambling that drove your compulsion to steal this money, partly from the destinations the money went, and the pattern” of “small withdrawals” and “attempts to pay back some of the money”.

He added: “You have taken steps to address that and you have installed an app on your phone that prevents you accessing gambling websites.”

The judge accepted Morrison had “previous good character” and a “long track record of work” and had lost her employment due to her thieving. He added Morrison had “shown remorse”.

Recorder Horne said that after a trial, Morrison would have been given a two-year sentence, which he reduced by a third due to her guilty plea to 16 months.

Adding that Morrison was a “good prospect of rehabilitation”, the judge told a tearful Morrison sat in the dock, that he would suspend the sentence for 24 months.

He ordered for her to carry out 80 hours of unpaid work and undertake 25 days of rehabilitation activity.

A timetable was set for Proceeds of Crime proceedings to determine whether Morrison will have to pay the money back.