How can you be guilty of an offence you did not actively take part in or know was going to happen?
Whether you were the person who was holding the gun, the driver of the getaway car or even in receipt of communication from someone involved in the offence at the time of an incident, you can be equally responsible and prosecuted under the joint enterprise doctrine. This allows a number of people to be prosecuted for an offence without the requirement to consider each person’s individual involvement in carrying out the offence.
The Crown Prosecution Service has to prove merely that a defendant could have “reasonably foreseen” the incident to have taken place and that the incident “might involve harm”. The principle is that one party would conduct a principle element, for example to stab a victim, and any secondary parties are those in the vicinity to assist or encourage the offence or principle party.
The law is now over 300 years old and was initially founded and applied to prevent groups from dueling, later on it was then applied to other offences, most notably in case of Derek Bentley, an extremely vulnerable teenager who was hanged for joint enterprise murder despite public outrage in 1953.
Over the last 10 years there has been a substantial increase in secondary parties being systematically given mandatory life sentences after being found guilty by association or being in the vicinity of an incident. This is often shown in our evening news bulletins concerning Gang Crime but it does not stop there, it can often relate to drug offences and off the cuff incidents after a night on the town.
In the case of R v Ch, a male was accused of an incident along with 5 others and sentenced to serve 30 years imprisonment. The evidence linking him to the case appears to have been a call he received from another person who was at the scene of the incident.
This case highlights the difficulties surrounding this type of offence and demonstrates, in my mind, the need for Parliament to reconsider its role in enforcing mandatory minimums in relation to legislation and sentencing. It would seem our MPs are relying on a “one size fits all” rule in an effort to attempt to address high crime figures and be seen to be conquering crime in the UK to secure the public vote.
In reality, by removing the discretion that Judges currently have to sentence each case on its merits having regard to all the mitigating factors of each individual involved in the case are we not removing the potential for a just and fair sentence?
Take the case of R v C, a 15 year old boy who, when out with a group of friends, was involved in an altercation where a blow to the neck resulted in the victim’s death two days later. It was said in Court that C did not take part in any vandalism, argument or the attack, which only lasted seconds. Unfortunately, he also did not witness the attack and was unable to provide any valuable evidence during the trial because he was blind. Despite this, C was given a 12 year life sentence for joint enterprise murder along with 2 other co-defendants.
With over 500 people serving mandatory life sentences for joint enterprise offences in the UK, both families of the convicted and charitable organisations fight tirelessly to have this law repealed through the signing of petitions and appeals.
A detailed Review of the Joint Enterprise Doctrine is due to take at the Supreme Court in October 2015. During which it is hoped that Judges can regain control to allow a system where innocent people, or those playing a minor role, are not unfairly treated.