Joint enterprise: what happens after Supreme Court’s historic ruling?

Prisoners can now appeal murder sentences 

The UK Supreme Court. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The UK Supreme Court. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The law on joint enterprise has been misapplied for the past 30 years, the Supreme Court ruled last week, meaning some prisoners could now lodge appeals. The BBC called it a “moment of genuine legal history”.

There has been much speculation since that hundreds of prisoners convicted using the law will now be released. But is that what will really happen?


What is the joint enterprise law? 

Joint enterprise or “guilt by association” allows more than one person to be charged and convicted of the same crime. A group or gang can be prosecuted for murder when it can’t be proved which member of the group actually killed the victim.

People were convicted of murder for having “foresight” of a crime even if they had no intention of causing serious harm and didn’t take a direct part. We explained the law in this post in February last year.

The Supreme Court judges have now said the “foresight” test is insufficient leaving the door open to appeals.



Is joint enterprise racist? 

Besides being legally misinterpreted, the joint enterprise law appears to discriminate against black and minority ethnic (BAME) people. Many young men were locked up in the past 10-15 years in what one article called a response to “gang panic”.

A recent study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies showed that a disproportionate number of BAME men had been criminalised at their trials with “gangs” being invoked. 


Joint enterprise prisoners: “gang” invoked at trial

Source: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

Source: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies


Another study by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge found that almost two-fifths of those serving very long sentences for joint enterprise offences are black.

That is 11 times the proportion of black people in the general population and almost three times as many as in the overall prison population.

Parliament’s Joint Select Committee also called for an “urgent review” of the law in 2014.


What happens to joint enterprise cases next? 

Some tabloids have had a field day with the Supreme Court’s ruling saying that it could result in the release of hundreds of dangerous criminals.

They have cited emotionally-stirring cases such as the murders of Becky Watts and Stephen Lawrence. The Daily Record claimed that as many as 600 convictions could be quashed.

However, The Guardian says that “we are not going to see large numbers of people walking out of prison as a result of this ruling”. 

An appeal might be allowed if substantial injustice was demonstrated, but a convicted person would not be cleared simply because the law that was applied at the time of the conviction was subsequently found to have been mistaken.”

Criminal defence lawyer Andrew Oldroyd, who was interviewed by The Derby Telegraph, agrees:

I do not expect there to be a mass release of sentenced prisoners from custody. The Supreme Court has made it clear that permission will have to be granted before any appeals will be heard and…The re-consideration of such matters will not necessarily lead to convictions being over-turned.”

Mr Oldroyd says that most homicide cases will be downgraded from murder to manslaughter at most. He also anticipates prosecutors using the joint enterprise law more selectively in the future.

The Supreme Court’s ruling will not affect Scotland as it has its own joint enterprise law, but it does have implications for places such as Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands.



Joint enterprise from campaigners and journalists 

Campaigners have been highlighting the hypocrisy of the joint enterprise law for years. Jengba, or Joint Enterprise: Not Guilt by Association has been especially dogged in its pursuit of justice.

Gloria Morrison, campaign coordinator for Jengba who we interviewed last year, said the judgement was a “massive vindication of its work”.

She told The Independent:Hundreds of people are in the prison system who shouldn’t be there because of this doctrine.

Janet Cunliffe, another Jengba campaigner whose nearly-blind son was jailed for life for his part in a murder using the joint enterprise law, is hoping that his case will be reviewed according to the Manchester Evening News.


Charlotte Henry and her brother Alex. Source: The Guardian

Charlotte Henry and her brother Alex. Source: The Guardian


The same goes for Charlotte Henry, another Jengba member whose brother was jailed for murder after his friend stabbed someone in a fight and who was interviewed in The Guardian.

Of course, other families of victims are hoping that their loved ones murderers stay behind bars. Thomas Devlin’s mother, who spoke to the BBC in Northern Ireland, is one of those.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also deserves a mention as it did some excellent in-depth investigations of joint enterprise. It produced the first comprehensive picture of how often joint enterprise was used in UK murder trials in 2014. 

Congratulations to all those who worked hard for change from the Prison Watch UK team.

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