“Winter Wonderland” promises in press ads for a Christmas theme park were criminally misleading, said Bristol Crown Court. Using powers under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 Judge Mark Horton imposed severe penalties on the culprits, including a company director as Hannah Willson reports.
Topic: Consumer protection
Who: Victor and Henry Mears, Lapland New Forest Ltd and Dorset Trading Standards
When: March 2011
Law stated as at: April 2011
November 2008, an outdoor winter wonderland with 'beautiful snow-covered log cabins', a 'magical tunnel of light', a 'bustling Christmas market' and 'wonderful ice rink' were some of the promises that encouraged ten thousand people to make advance bookings for a special Christmas treat.
The reality that greeted the keen ticket-holders when they arrived at the Christmas attraction outside Bournemouth was far cry from the promises that had been made. The 'magical tunnel of light' was fairy lights hung across a row of Christmas trees, the ice rink was closed for repairs, and garden sheds served as the beautiful log cabins, and then there was a 3 hour-long wait in the cold to see Father Christmas, who passed the children on to a nearby hut where they would receive the, unwrapped, present.
The disappointment of thousands of paying visitors prompted numerous complaints to Dorset Trading Standards and within a week Lapland New Forest had closed down and the company behind it had gone into administration.
Criminal charges under the Consumer Protection for Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPUT Regs) were brought against the brothers, Victor and Henry Mears, who were directors of Lapland New Forest Ltd, the company behind the venture. The brothers were set to gross £1.2 million but were found guilty at Bristol Crown Court on five charges of engaging in a commercial practice which is a misleading action and two charges of engaging in a commercial practice which is a misleading omission, gaining themselves 13 month prison sentences and disqualification from being company directors for five years.
The judge, Mark Horton, said of the brothers that they 'promised by deceit to satisfy dreams and have delivered misery by way of disappointment to thousands of people' and that 'the failure of Lapland Newforest was caused by the unrelenting greed shown by [them] and [their] desire to squeeze every drop of profit rather than build and create the winter wonderland [they] promised thousands of consumers.'
Why this matters:
This case is a clear demonstration of the potential ramifications of publishing misleading advertising and the personal accountability faced by "directors, managers, secretaries or other similar officers" of companies responsible for such advertising and any "person purporting to act as a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer" of such a company (Reg. 15 (2) of the CPUT Regs).
Victor Mears was the sole director of the company while his brother Henry Mears was responsible for managing and the promotion of the attraction, so both were caught by Regulation 15 (2) and faced personal prosecution even though the company itself was by that time defunct.
The CPUT Regs do provide for a complete defence, if all reasonable precautions are taken and due diligence carried out to avoid committing an offence, however Victor Mears admitted that it was 'a bit of a gamble' setting up Lapland New Forest without investing any money, showing that no such reasonable precautions or due diligence were undertaken in this case.
The CPUT Regs, found here, also outline the offences under Regulations 5 and 6 and Schedule 1 lists the commercial practices that will always be considered to be unfair. If embarking on a new commercial venture and producing launch advertising, reference to these Regulations is advisable so as to avoid potentially stiff penalties such as those which were handed down in this case.