A MAN who set fire to his own home after concocting a story that his estranged wife had hired two hit men to harm him has been spared a prison sentence.

A judge at Carlisle Crown Court said the unusual circumstances that led joiner Michael Hartley, 51, to go “completely off the rails” for six months meant he should not receive the immediate custodial sentence almost always imposed in such cases.

Instead Hartley – who was said to be now recovering after being “very ill” from the depression he was suffering at the time – was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended for two years.

He was also given two years’ probation supervision and put under a curfew to keep him indoors from 9pm to 6am every night for the next four months.

The court heard that Hartley’s ten-year marriage to his wife Gillian foundered in 2012 amid her claims that his depression and attention-seeking made his presence in the home “toxic”.

Prosecuting counsel Brendan Burke said that in March last year, by which time he was living alone in a flat in Peartree Park, Carnforth, Hartley told police he had received a text message threatening him.

His wife said she knew nothing about it, and she too started getting messages referring to “an agreement to inflict violence upon him,” Mr Burke said.

One such message stated: “Don’t worry, we will sort him,” the court heard.

Mr Burke said Mrs Hartley guessed he was behind the messages, but they continued to be sent, and at the end of March Hartley showed the police a message he had received threatening to set his flat on fire.

He also said he had seen two strange men at his wife’s house and claimed he had been attacked by two unknown men wearing motor cycle helmets, the barrister said.

As a result the police made house-to-house inquiries, questioned people in local pubs and issued a press release asking for help.

The court heard that on September 2 Hartley set fire to his flat, jumping out of a first-floor window to escape the fumes.

But, Mr Burke said, fire investigators were immediately suspicious because they found a “very obvious bottle of accelerant.”

For ten days Hartley “presented himself as a victim of an arson attack” before confessing to a psychiatric nurse that he sent the threatening messages, and started the fire, himself.

Hartley pleaded guilty to doing acts intended to pervert the course of justice and arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

In mitigation defence barrister Tim Storrie said Hartley’s behaviour had been “shaped entirely by a very deep personal crisis, in the middle of which he was suffering from a very very severe degree of depression.”

Hartley is now living with his brother in Graham Street, Lancaster.