Lapland 'con' duo cleared on appeal

Two brothers jailed after being accused of conning thousands of customers into visiting what they claimed was a Lapland-style theme park had their convictions overturned by appeal judges today.

Three judges at the Court of Appeal - who heard argument that the jury hearing the case should have been discharged after it was revealed that one of the panel had been exchanging text messages with her fiance - announced that they had "reached the conclusion that the convictions are unsafe".

Victor Mears, 67, and Henry Mears, 60, were jailed for 13 months in March this year and have both now served their sentences.

Bristol Crown Court heard during their trial that they offered visitors to the Lapland New Forest attraction in 2008 a winter wonderland with snow-covered log cabins, a nativity scene, husky dogs, polar bears and other animals, as well as a bustling Christmas market.

But families found a muddy field, a broken ice rink and fairy lights hung from trees, the court heard.

Dorset Trading Standards prosecuted the brothers under consumer protection laws.

Victor, of Selsfield Drive, and Henry, of Coombe Road, both Brighton, East Sussex, denied eight charges of misleading advertising but they were found guilty on all counts by the jury.

Their conviction appeals were allowed today by Lord Justice Moore-Bick, Mr Justice Butterfield and Mr Justice Irwin.

No application was made for a re-trial.

Lord Justice Moore-Bick announced at the end of a hearing in London: "We have reached the conclusion that the convictions are unsafe."

He said the court would give its reasons for its decision at a later date.

A woman juror - who received a text of "guilty" from her fiance - was discharged from the jury by Judge Mark Horton, leaving a panel of 11.

The fact that she and her boyfriend had been regularly exchanging text messages only came to light by chance during the judge's summing up in the case.

Victor Mears Junior - the son of defendant Victor Mears - spotted the pair talking outside court and reported it.

When Judge Horton questioned the middle-aged woman about it, she admitted the man was her fiance and said they had been regularly exchanging text messages during the trial.

Her boyfriend had watched much of the two-month trial from the public gallery.

The trial judge rejected an application for the other 11 jurors to be discharged.

But lawyers for the brothers argued today that some of the text messages were "prejudicial to the appellants" and the judge "erred" in not discharging the jury after the text messaging came to light.

Rossano Scamardella, counsel for Henry Mears, submitted that there was a "13th juror" and that "the jury retiring room can no longer be seen as sacrosanct, a pre-requisite for a fair trial".

He told the judges: "The entire jury should have been discharged."

PA

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