Joint Enterprise sounds a lot like a business venture, but it is actually a little-known law used to convict an entire group of people. In the case of murder, who actually had the murder weapon or dealt the final blow becomes insignificant.

All members of the group can be convicted of the same crime despite playing very different roles. The question therefore remains: can you be held culpable for the actions of a friend? Can you even be aware of their intentions?

Lord Phillips, a leading retired judge was quoted in the Guardian as saying “Joint enterprise is capable of producing injustice, undoubtedly. You have to rely on juries and on the judge to more or less say who was involved and how. There is huge discretion on how it is used by prosecutors. It’s very complicated for juries and it falls to the judge to do his best to explain things to the jury. Some of the scenes of group violence are so horrifying they can leave a jury willing to convict anyone who was there.”

Joint Enterprise essentially punishes you according to who you associate with. It is believed by some that those at the scene of a crime or involved with those committing a crime can be equally culpable. Leading criminal lawyer Jeremy Summers argues that these convictions can act as a deterrent for young people, especially for those considering joining a gang.

However is it really a deterrent for young people when most aren’t even aware of the law of Joint Enterprise? Many people also argue Joint Enterprise disproportionately damages the working class. They are most likely to be punished due to who they associate with.

A recent BBC documentary Guilty by Association explores families on both sides of the debate. There are families who feel the law has helped bring those involved in the death of a loved one to justice. There are also those who feel the law has stolen an innocent relative.

The most shocking conviction the programme highlights is that of Wayne Collins, sentenced to 18 years. He was with a group of people, most of whom he didn’t know, when they started rioting. Someone fired towards police. Prosecutors believed he would have been aware of the gun and its intended use.

He was presumably terrified of the charges against him and therefore lied in his statements to police. This made it much easier for him to be convicted. Joint Enterprise seems to damage most severely those unfamiliar with the law and unable to work the system. There are endless other people like Collins.

In these cases innocent until proven guilty does not seem to apply. Nor does beyond reasonable doubt. People appear to be guilty until proven innocent, and reasonable doubt can still remain. Legal aid cuts are making it even more difficult to get good quality lawyers, and support for people on the fringes of society. However the primary problem lies with charging people who would have never been charged as an individual.

Graham Virgo of Cambridge University told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: “My main concern is that a defendant can be convicted for murder, with the mandatory life sentence, even though he or she did not cause death and did not have the intention to kill or to cause serious injury.”

Joint Enterprise needs a much lower threshold. In the case of murder the defendant merely needs to foresee the possibility that someone may cause someone else serious harm in order to be convicted.

So can it ever work? Joint Enterprise was used in the Stephen Lawrence case to eventually convict David Norris and Gary Dobson. Few would question the justice of these convictions.

However the Lawrence case was in the most extreme of circumstances, and police failings and institutionalised racism have ensured justice will never be fully reached.

Few disagree with the principle of Joint Enterprise. That all those involved in a crime may be equally culpable.
For instance in the case of murder, whoever struck the final blow may become insignificant if all members are heavily involved and intending to cause serious harm.

However cases are rarely this clear cut. There is often a spectrum of involvement, and reform is needed to ensure justice prevails. For believers in a just legal system, Lord Falconer, former Lord Chancellor’s comments to Radio 4 in 2010 are shocking.

“I think the real question is do you want a law as draconian as our law is, which says juries can convict even if you are quite a peripheral member of the gang which killed? And I think broadly the view of reasonable people is that you probably do need a quite draconian law in that respect.”

As the law stands, injustice is bound to happen. Members in the periphery of gangs are expected to hold an immense and impossible level of foresight. They are also expected to take responsibility for actions that are not their own. Therefore change is necessary, and those convicted must be convicted based on their degree of knowledge and involvement.

This is best illustrated in the case of Laura Mitchell. She was involved in a drunken brawl, it ended. Her male companions returned with weapons and someone was killed. She was looking for her shoes at the time of the second fight in a nearby car park but was still convicted of murder.



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