Lapland New Forest men's convictions quashed over juror text

Victor (left) and Henry Mears
Image caption Both men were found guilty in March on eight counts of misleading advertising

Two brothers jailed for misleading customers at a Lapland-themed park have had their convictions quashed after it emerged a juror had been texting during the trial.

Victor Mears, 67, and Henry Mears, 60, both of Brighton, ran the Lapland New Forest attraction in 2008.

Three Court of Appeal judges ruled their convictions under Trading Standards legislation were unsafe.

The court heard a juror exchanged text messages with her fiance in the trial.

Lawyers for the brothers argued they should not have been convicted after the trial judge at Bristol Crown Court discovered the jury member had been in regular contact with her partner, who sat in the public gallery during the trial.

They sent text messages to each other, even while the juror was in the jury box, with one of the man's messages reading "guilty".

The fiance also texted her from the public gallery to warn her when she may be called back in following discussions in the absence of the jury. She showed some of these to other members of the jury, the court heard.

'Fried breakfast' text

The woman admitted being in touch with her fiance.

She said his "guilty" text was an apology from him for eating a fried breakfast that morning, when he should have been on a diet.

The judges said they would give their reasoning at a later date for quashing the conviction.

Image caption One visitor to Lapland New Forest said the nativity scene made people laugh

Dorset Trading Standards, which brought the original case, made no application for the two brothers to face a retrial.

Both men, who were jailed for 13 months in March after being found guilty of eight counts of misleading advertising, had been released from prison part-way through serving their sentences.

Younger brother Henry, was not in court to hear the decision.

His older brother sat through the hearing and left immediately afterwards, refusing to answer questions from waiting journalists.

Hilary Cox, Dorset County Council cabinet member for community services, said: "We are deeply disappointed that the convictions of the Mears brothers in connection with the New Forest Lapland attraction have been rendered unsafe due to the conduct of a juror at the original trial.

"However, we recognised it would not be in the public interest to request a retrial, particularly as the events took place almost three years ago and that prison sentences have been served by both men."

'Long trial'

She said the original prosecution and nine-week trial had cost the county council £98,000 in legal costs and officer time.

Mr Justice Butterfield, one of the three appeal judges, said: "This must have been a long trial for all concerned."

He added that the attitude by the authorities at the time seemed to be: "So let's do everything we can to get it finished.

"What would have happened if this issue with the juror had come up on the third day of the trial rather than after nine weeks?"

During the trial, the court was told that customers, who paid up to £30 a ticket, were greeted by a muddy field, fairy lights dangling from a tree and a broken ice rink.

Less than a week after opening in November 2008, the attraction closed after hundreds of complaints, with its owners blaming the media and sabotage by "New Forest villains" for the decision.

The trial heard the brothers could have made more than £1m from advance ticket sales.

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