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What’s Wrong With Joint Enterprise?

To what extent is someone present at a crime scene culpable for the actions of their peers? This is precisely the question that the Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association, JENGbA for short, aims to answer. JENGbA is an activist group founded in 2010 that seeks an end to the law of joint enterprise under the Accessories and Abettors Act of 1861.

In English common law, joint enterprise is the idea that people who have collaborated or contributed to the commission of a criminal incident can be tried as though they themselves committed the crime, which puts greater responsibility onto them. The Accessories and Abettors Act of 1861 addressed accomplices and inciters in criminal conduct and, although it has largely been repealed, parts of it remain in force. Section 8 is a key example of this, stating that any collaborators may be “liable to be tried, indicted, and punished as a principal offender”. To better illustrate this notion, there are three main categories of joint enterprise—

  1. When two or more individuals commit a crime together and their roles are equal. For instance, if two people rob a house together, they are considered “joint principals”.

  2. When one individual assists another in committing a crime, like if one individual gives another a knife which they can then use to stab another person.

  3. When two individuals commit a crime together and in the process one of the two commits another crime and the other individual knew this was a possibility. For example, when two people rob a house together and in the process, one of them kills the owner and the other individual foresaw this happening.

In 2016, the Supreme Court revised part of Joint Enterprise to eliminate the third category on the grounds of it being open to misinterpretation. Instead, they made it so that the other individual must have encouraged or instigated the first offender in commission of the crime.

As such, the Joint Enterprise law has landed itself in a furore regarding its implementation, as many activists take issue with how it’s put into practice. Although Joint Enterprise as a concept was intended to expand accountability for crimes and address more of the factors at play during commission, it has had many adverse effects which groups like JENGbA seek to bring to light.

For one, the prosecution can be riddled with racial or cultural stereotypes, leading to certain individuals being more likely to be convicted given their identity. Studies have shown that the law massively disproportionately affects BAME groups (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) in English society. Moreover, many argue that the law gives undue weight to the actions of secondary offenders and that it can’t possibly be fair for collaborators in murder being tried equally to the actual murderer. If far more people are being imprisoned for sentences longer than justified, such an overextended prison population proves to be a drain on taxpayer money.

JENGbA’s campaign across England, powered largely by the loved ones of those affected, argues that Joint Enterprise unduly convicts individuals of crimes they may be innocent of, by making extreme inferences from limited evidence. A 2010 BBC report found that in the 116 murder trials that took place in the prior two years, Joint Enterprise was applied to all of them and overall 350 defendants were convicted— proving it to be an influential and impactful law.

Ultimately, despite it being slightly adjusted in 2016, Joint Enterprise largely continues to impact criminal convictions. But, until there is an extremely robust and sound range of evidence to show its ulterior impacts, I doubt that it will go anywhere.

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