Oliver Mears: Surrey Police to review all rape cases after Oxford University student cleared more than two years after accusation

Decision comes after judge hits out at ‘unnecessary delays’ in investigation

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 19 January 2018 15:56
Oliver Mears was not present to hear the judge formally clear him of all charges on Friday but his mother told reporters she was ‘genuinely delighted’ while leaving the court
Oliver Mears was not present to hear the judge formally clear him of all charges on Friday but his mother told reporters she was ‘genuinely delighted’ while leaving the court

A second British police force has started a review of all live rape cases amid fears the failure to find and disclose vital evidence will cause miscarriages of justice.

Surrey Police announced the move after the prosecution of an Oxford University student collapsed because of new evidence passed to prosecutors.

Oliver Mears suspended his chemistry studies at St Hugh’s College while awaiting trial for allegedly raping and assaulting a woman at a party in July 2015.

But days before it was due to start, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it would not be presenting any evidence against him after receiving new material from Surrey Police.

A judge at Guildford Crown Court hit out at the police investigation into Mr Mears while recording not guilty verdicts.

“There has been an unnecessary delay investigating appropriate avenues, leading to what seems to be a completely unnecessary last-minute decision,” Judge Jonathan Black told the court, saying the new material should have been “investigated properly in the first instance”.

Jon Savell, the head of public protection for Surrey Police, said the force “deeply regrets” the mistakes made and would learn from them to make improvements.

“We are reviewing all our current rape cases to ensure that investigations are thorough, timely, effective and compliant with policy and guidelines,” he added.

“We will also work with the CPS to conduct a joint review of this case.”

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The Metropolitan Police previously announced a review of all live child abuse and sexual offences after two rape cases it investigated collapsed within a week in December.

Judges threw out unrelated rape prosecutions against Liam Allan and Isaac Itiary, with both men acquitted after the discovery of evidence that should have stopped them ending up in court.

Police had downloaded the contents of complainants’ phones but failed to pass on the information they contained to the prosecution or defence, claiming thousands of messages were irrelevant.

Mr Itiary had been charged with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl but messages showed she had claimed she was 19, while Mr Allan’s alleged victim had told friends she wanted and enjoyed sex she later reported as rape.

Both men are expected to launch legal action and a review is ongoing, but the scandal over failures by both police and prosecutors to disclose key evidence has since widened.

One man had his rape conviction overturned last month after serving four years in prison, with a judge finding he may not have been found guilty had previously unseen Facebook conversations been shown to jurors.

Earlier this week, an Eritrean rape suspect who was under investigation for 18 months was freed with no further action after lawyers found photos showing him and the complainant “cuddling” in bed.

A man accused of bribery was also acquitted this month after his lawyers presented emails he had told police about 18 months ago.

In Mr Mears’ case, the CPS said they had been awaiting information from the complainant’s diary, sensitive information relating to her and evidence from seized electronic devices.

The CPS first notified Judge Black of its decision in writing but he ordered prosecutors to attend court to explain the reasons in public.

“In light of the new information the prosecution no longer had a realistic prospect of success,” barrister Sarah Lindop said.

“The decision was made at a number of levels for the case to continue no more.”

Liam Allan, a 22-year-old criminology student, was acquitted of all charges in a previous disclosure case

Ms Lindop described the case against Mr Mears as “finely balanced” from the start, saying prosecutors had to make a specific application to obtain certain materials from the police and had been requesting to see the complainant’s diary since October.

“We were also awaiting confirmation from the police in terms of the digital devices seized and their investigation into those,” she added.

Recording not guilty verdicts for rape and sexual assault by penetration – which the teenager had always denied – Judge Black ordered the CPS to provide a full explanation of what happened within 28 days.

Mr Mears was not present to hear the judge formally clear him of all charges on Friday but his mother told reporters she was “genuinely delighted” while leaving the court.

Surrey Police said the case was discontinued for “a number of reasons” after conducting a review, only one of which related to its investigation.

“This is an investigative issue and not related to disclosure,” said Mr Savell.

“We accept that there were flaws in the initial investigation. It was not expedient and the investigator did not examine the victim’s digital media during the initial stages of the investigation or follow what we would consider to be a reasonable line of enquiry.”

Mr Savell said all evidence gathered by police was submitted to the CPS in May last year, with the decision to charge Mr Mears made the following month.

On 4 January, the CPS requested that police provide material from the alleged victim’s ”digital media“, with officers obtaining the devices and providing it on 15 January.

“Surrey Police deeply regrets mistakes made in the efficacy of investigations and will always seek to implement continual improvement and specific learning points,” Mr Savell said.

“Since 2015 we have reviewed our structure and the resources dedicated to the investigation of child and adult rape and serious sexual offences.

“Significant investment has been made in resourcing levels and training.”

Lawyers say they are frequently told police do not have the time, training or resources to examine thousands of messages and photos on each smartphone – technology which did not exist when forces were given the responsibility of checking for evidence.

A report issued in July by HM CPS Inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said even unused items of evidence must be reviewed by police “to see whether it is capable of undermining the prosecution case or assisting the defence case” and passed on.

Warning of widespread failures by both police and prosecutors, the authority said officers failing to comply with requirements were “often ignorant” of their disclosure responsibilities.

“Non-compliance with the disclosure process is not new and has been common knowledge amongst those engaged within the criminal justice system for many years,” the damning report concluded.

Police officers and prosecutors interviewed by inspectors said they believed limited resources and a lack of time were the main causes, even though “long-standing” problems predate recent budget reductions.