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Parliament must make its views known on Joint Enterprise ‘injustice’

4 min read

The Supreme Court said that the law had taken a wrong turn, but nothing has changed. MPs now want to have their say, writes Lucy Powell

Many people will remember the seminal 2014 BBC crime drama Common, by Jimmy McGovern, and the accompanying documentary Guilty By Association, which shone a light on some of the injustices of Joint Enterprise. In that story, Johnjo O’Shea, a 17-year old who drove three older friends to a pizza parlour, waiting outside when they went in, was charged with murder under Joint Enterprise because one of his passengers stabbed a customer.

This drama and the documentary highlighted the concerns associated with Joint Enterprise, and was a key moment in bringing to life the grassroots campaign, led by JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association), built up over the years to challenge the way Joint Enterprise has been used. The result of this campaign was the Supreme Court Jogee ruling in 2016, almost two years ago, which came to the conclusion that the law had taken a “wrong turn” back in 1984 having been wrongly interpreted for the last 30 years.

Joint enterprise has been on the statue for 300 years, but has featured more prominently in cases such as the murder or Garry Newlove and Stephen Lawrence. Whilst no one would argue that murderers should not be brought to justice, and face the full force of the law, the way Joint Enterprise is being used is problematic as the Supreme Court ruling illustrates. Using Joint Enterprise allows the prosecution to lower the evidential bar, and depends mainly on a gang narrative which involves loose friendship groups or casual associations. In the age of social media being a Facebook friend, or receiving a text from a perpetrator, can be enough for someone to be charged and incarcerated for life.

There are many cases where Joint Enterprise has been used to charge and convict people who have not committed murder, and may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Investigations by the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism between 2005 and 2013 revealed that Joint Enterprise has been used to prosecute between 1,800 and 4,590 people for murder over the past eight years. There are people, predominantly men in their teens and early twenties, serving mandatory life sentences for murder for which they had no direct role or foresight of.

The youngest prisoners JENGbA support, now serving life sentences, were just 13 years old at the time of the offence committed by another.

Analysis by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University on Joint Enterprise, gangs and racism also points to the fact that there is emerging evidence of the overrepresentation of the use of Joint Enterprise doctrine against young BAME people due to the ambiguous nature of “gang” definitions and the use of Joint Enterprise as a deterrent tied to gang narratives.

The Supreme Court ruling said that it was “the responsibility of the court to put the law right” yet very little has changed. No conviction has been quashed, and the number of people charged and convicted of Joint Enterprise remains at similar levels to before the ruling.

The families involved in the JENGbA campaign, to shine a light on the injustices associated with Joint Enterprise, had hoped that the Supreme Court ruling would be a watershed moment, when they could right wrongs, and free loved ones wrongly imprisoned. This has not happened, and they have relaunched their campaign recently in Parliament as a result.

Many MPs have come across fresh cases and injustices and many have old cases still awaiting appeal. That’s why a group of cross-Party MPs including the chair of the justice committee Bob Neill, former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, David Lammy and I have come together with concerned colleagues to call for a debate on Joint Enterprise. We feel there is a need for Parliament to make its views known, in the face of inaction by the courts, so that the Supreme Court ruling can be enacted and the way charges and prosecutions are brought changed. 


Lucy Powell is Labour Co-op MP for Manchester Central. Her Backbench Business Debate on Joint Enterprise is on Thursday 25 January 

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