County Antrim painter and decorator remanded in custody after being accused of 'aggressive commercial practices'

County Antrim painter and decorator remanded in custody after being accused of 'aggressive commercial practices'

A 47-year-old painter and decorator from Larne accused of 'pressure sales' against customers, including the elderly, has been refused bail at Ballymena Magistrates Court.

Stephen Edward Stewart (47), of Blackthorn Rise, faces two counts of engaging in 'aggressive commercial practice' and eight charges of fraud by false representation by 'dishonestly' making offers to carry out work for customers.

The charges relate to dates in May, June and July 12 this year.

He appeared at court via a video link from Belfast.

A prosecution lawyer objected to bail saying that on July 8 police in Antrim town were told of a number of incidents of "possible fraud" in relation to Stewart who is a painter and decorator trading as 'NI Home Improvement'.

The lawyer said a number of leaflets had been seized. She said the defendant approached households to offer services via "door to door sales".

Quotes would then be offered and complainants, many of whom are elderly, described his "tactics as forceful and high-pressured".

She said there were nine "identified incidents at the moment" in which the defendant had received a total of around "£4,500" but had failed to complete work in the agreed time or refund deposits, the prosecutor said.

The lawyer said one woman in Belfast paid £1,200 for cleaning and painting and another Belfast woman paid £650 to have her roof cleaned.

Stewart also secured money for work from four residents in Antrim town whilst in Newtownabbey a woman agreed to pay £340 for painting, repairs and the cleaning of guttering.

An elderly woman was approached in her garden by the defendant and he quoted £400 for interior decorating and returned the next day and obtained the money up front.

The court heard the defendant's home address was searched on July 9 but he was not there. Documents were seized and the next day he was also absent and his Mercedes Sprinter van was seized.

The prosecutor said that on July 12 an elderly woman in Newtownards told police she had been approached at a shop by Stewart who claimed to have carried out work for her a number of years ago and when she returned home from the shop the defendant appeared at her front door offering to fix her garage door.

The lawyer said Stewart was described as being "persistent and pressurising" and she paid a deposit of £140 "just to get him out of the house as she was feeling frightened".

The court heard the defendant was arrested at the Hilton Hotel in Belfast on July 13 and told police: "This is all easily explained".

The defendant told police the allegation of aggressive selling was "absolute nonsense".

The prosecutor said Stewart admitted doing door-to-door selling and speaking to the alleged victims but that "due to an illness he was unable to carry the work out" and had been "involved in a road traffic collision".

The lawyer said the defendant claimed the illness caused him to "lose his voice" which was why his customers couldn't contact him, whilst he alleged his mobile had been cut off because he was "£2,500 to £3,000 in debt" to a phone firm.

The court heard Stewart said he had "every intention" of carrying out the work.

The prosecutor said there are "ongoing investigations" into another alleged offence regarding a 79-year-old in October last year.

Objecting to bail, the lawyer said the defendant had 85 previous convictions and in 2019 was given a six months prison term, suspended for three years, for "fraud".

The prosecutor believed there was a risk of the defendant absconding if released on bail and a risk of further offending and a risk of interference with witnesses.

The lawyer said the offending was in a "worryingly wide geographical area"

A defence solicitor said the defendant "has not been found guilty of anything".

He said Stewart was unable to complete the work in a "timely fashion" but had "every intention" of doing it and had given his correct name and phone number.

The lawyer said oldest allegation on the charge sheet was "eight weeks ago" and said the prosecution was "premature".

He said the defendant is intending to get his phone reinstated and and any remand in custody would be "draconian" and Stewart will not be able to work.

The defence solicitor added: "There is a big leap between incompetence and being fraudulent".

The lawyer said there was "no issue" with the customers getting their money back.

Deputy District Judge Noel Dunlop said they were "serious" allegations and refused bail on the grounds of a risk of further offences. He also feared the defendant may not return to court and there was a possibility of "interference" with witnesses.

The case was adjourned to August 12.

The defence solicitor said he would be making an application to the High Court for bail.