Police failings 'contributed' to double murder
A series of failings by Surrey Police contributed to the murder of a mother and daughter shot dead by a puppy farmer, an inquest jury has ruled.
Christine Lee, 66, and Lucy Lee, 40, were killed by John Lowe, then 82, in Farnham in February 2014. The jury at Working coroner’s court listed five failings by Surrey Police that “more than minimally contributed” to the women’s deaths.
Officers had confiscated Lowe’s shotgun, but it was handed back seven months before the killings, despite an allegation that he had threatened to kill Lucy Lee’s sister, Stacey Banner, with a gun in March 2013.
Lowe was convicted of murder in 2014 and jailed for life. He died in August 2018, aged 86.
In its summary, which determined that the Lees had been unlawfully killed, the inquest jury found that Surrey Police failed to have a system in place “to ensure that the decision whether or not to return a shotgun certificate and shotgun to a certificate holder following removal pending a criminal investigation was made or approved by a senior police officer”.
The force’s Firearms Licensing Department (FLD) failed to “investigate sufficiently” whether it was safe to return the shotgun to Lowe following the threat to kill allegation in March 2013, the jury said.
It also ruled that the FLD failed to “consider all the evidence and information available to it” and failed “to apply the correct standard of proof” when deciding whether to revoke or return Lowe’s shotgun and licence.
The department also failed to recommend the revocation of Lowe’s shotgun licence in July 2013 and there was a consequential failure by Surrey Police to revoke the certificate, the jury ruled.
It said the FLD had a range of evidence available to it when considering whether or not to revoke Lowe’s licence, including a Surrey Police report in August 1996 that recommended revoking Lowe’s shotgun certificate “on the grounds of evidence of domestic violence and intemperate behaviour and a perceived risk of the perpetrator using extreme violence to anybody including police”.
The jury also noted that Lowe did not disclose medical conditions in a 2010 firearms licence renewal application, but a GP’s letter following the seizure of his weapon in 2013 referred to a number of conditions existing at the time of the application.
Local authorities had information that Lowe failed to comply with dog breeding licensing requirements on two occasions. It was also revealed that Surrey Police had a report concerning allegations of fraud against Lowe, which indicated he was likely to be arrested.
The jury concluded: “The FLD did not take fully into account all the evidence available to them. The FLD did not make further inquiries into the references to domestic violence, potential mental health issues and the nature of the CID fraud investigation.”
Jurors said the review of Lowe’s shotgun licence return could have been postponed pending the outcome of the fraud investigation. They noted there was no nationally accredited firearms licensing training at the time, with new recruits in Surrey spending a week learning office systems and administration, followed by a week shadowing an experienced staff member.
Following the verdict, Coroner Richard Travers said he would be producing a prevention of future deaths report recommending that a new training course offered by South Yorkshire Police is made mandatory for firearms inquiry officers.
Surrey Police Assistant Chief Constable Jon Savell said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Christine and Lucy Lee following their tragic deaths on February 23, 2014. We recognise the profound impact their deaths have had on those who knew them, and we offer our sincerest condolences.
“The jury has today found that there were failing in decisions taken by the FLD at that time, which we have already acknowledged and for which we apologise.
“In 2014, the force commissioned two independent reports from Hampshire Constabulary and North Yorkshire Police, which indicated the decisions by firearms licensing officers to return weapons to John Lowe was flawed and did not meet national standards. We spoke with members of Christine and Lucy Lee’s family at that time to advise them of these findings and to apologise for that decision.
“Since then Surrey Police has undertaken a comprehensive review of its firearms licensing practices and instigated a wide range of recommendations to improve its decision-making practices and ensure public safety is maximised.”
In 2016, the then Independent Police Complaints Commission recommended gross misconduct hearings against two firearms licensing officers in connection with the decision to return Lowe’s shotguns.
One had already left the force, but the other was dismissed without notice following disciplinary proceedings in November 2016. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to bring criminal charges against the firearms licensing officers involved in the case.