What is joint enterprise crime?
Joint enterprise is a type of crime that can lead to somebody being convicted and sentenced in relation to a crime that they didn’t directly (ie physically) commit. This is referred to as secondary liability (or ‘accessory liability’). To apply, the person being convicted must generally have:
assisted with the crime (even just by, for example, choosing to be in the location it is committed in), and
known, before it was committed, the essential matters constituting the crime that somebody else physically committed
For example, if someone commits a murder, and another person was at the scene who was potentially aware that a murder was going to take place but they did not take any action to prevent it (or actively encouraged it), they may also be convicted of the murder. Whether or not they will be depends on various complex factors, such as their degree of knowledge as to what was to occur and the reasons for their being at the location of the crime.
The history of joint enterprise crime
Joint enterprise crime sits on a lengthy and complex collection of legal cases, which dictate what the law is today.
The first well-publicised case involving a joint enterprise conviction was the trial of Derek Bentley back in 1952. Bentley, 18 years old at the time, and his friend Christopher Craig, aged 16, were caught in the act whilst robbing a factory in Croydon.
Craig fired a shot, which killed Sidney Miles, the police officer who had interrupted their burglary. Both Bentley and Craig were charged and convicted of the murder due to joint enterprise rules. Despite this, only Bentley was sentenced to hang, as Craig was only 16 at the time of the murder.
According to the evidence given during the trial, Bentley shouted to Craig, ‘let him have it’, which involved him in the murder and led to the joint enterprise conviction.
Why is joint enterprise so controversial?
Joint enterprise crimes have come under deep scrutiny in the UK in recent years. Opposers to joint enterprise argue that convictions are used to unfairly target young men of colour who, in fact, were innocent of the crimes for which they’re being convicted. It is also felt that these convictions are made too commonly, or unfairly, putting innocent bystanders at risk of being incorrectly convicted. Joint enterprise has been used to convict multiple individuals in cases of gang or other group violence, including those involving young people. It’s been argued that this often imposes unfair penalties on young people already facing multiple disadvantages, threatening their future prospects and promoting cycles of violence and disadvantage.
What is the future of joint enterprise crime?
Joint enterprise crime is an area of criminal law that’s frequently being reexamined. Some even argue that the principle of joint enterprise crime no longer exists, as a 2016 Supreme Court case raised the threshold of intent (ie the state of mind and decision-making accompanying an action) that somebody must have had to be convicted via secondary liability. More of a ‘common purpose’ is now required in relation to the crime (ie a common purpose held between the people involved in the crime), rather than simply foresight of the possibility of the offence being committed.
Essentially, regardless of whether we’re still calling it ‘joint enterprise’, simple ‘foresight’ of a crime potentially happening is no longer sufficient for someone to be guilty of a joint enterprise crime.
When this case was heard, many wondered whether it would result in a large number of appeals, particularly in gang-related cases where it was determined that those convicted potentially could have predicted or foreseen violent acts carried out by associates, but they had no intention that these should occur. The appellate floodgates did not seem to open, partly perhaps due to the challenge of appealing convictions after a long period of time has passed - but this development may be impacting the number of perhaps unfair joint enterprise convictions being brought since the judgment.