Joint enterprise enables prosecutors to try a group of people together for a crime such as murder even without having to identify exactly who struck the fatal blow. Given that five or six people set upon Stephen Lawrence on that fateful night in 1993 – and none of the suspects have been willing to name who it was who wielded the knife – the Crown Prosecution Service can bring prosecutions against any of the suspects for the murder (provided they have sufficient evidence to place them at the scene of the crime).
However, the law on joint enterprise is so confusing for juries and courts alike that legislation is needed to ensure justice for both victims and defendants and end the high number of cases reaching the Court of Appeal, MPs on the Justice Committee have warned in a new report.
The Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the Rt. Hon Sir Alan Beith MP said: “This area of law is vital to ensuring the prosecution and conviction of criminals involved in gang-related violence in particular, but is now so complex that juries may find it impossible to understand how to reach the right verdict. This issue should not wait for a general review of the law of homicide which few governments would be willing to undertake.”
The MPs are also calling on the Director of Public Prosecutions to produce guidance for prosecutors on joint enterprise, particularly in cases of gang-related homicide.
Sir Alan commented: “The law on joint enterprise has a role in deterring young people from becoming involved in gangs but confusion over the law and how it works can put vital witnesses in fear of coming forward, allowing the real criminals to escape justice. It is also important to ensure that young people are not unnecessarily brought into the criminal justice system when they are on the edge of gang-related activity.”
The Justice Committee recommended that the Director of Public Prosecutions collate data on the number of people charged under joint enterprise so that problems with the operation of the law identified by campaigning groups representing both victims and those that say they have been convicted in a miscarriage of justice can be alleviated, if necessary.