One of the most controversial laws in UK criminal legislation is known as joint enterprise (JE) and continues to disproportionately affect BAME people, breaking up communities and locking people up through a ‘guilt-by-association’ philosophy. Between 1985 and 2016, JE could look one of 3 ways. First, when multiple actors are involved in a crime, verifying which one completed the act is impossible. The least controversial form, a prime example, is the Stephen Lawrence case. Gary Dobson and David Norris were both found guilty of the murder, as it was impossible to reveal which one had inflicted the wound that ultimately killed Lawrence (Lammy, 2017).
The other two ways in which JE can be used are similar in that they both rely on parasitic accessory liability (PAL), which suggests that, should one party have a foresight of the possibility that the other may commit a crime, this is enough to prosecute under JE. This could be an incident where one actor encourages another to perpetrate a crime or a crime one actor commits while completing another crime. For example, if multiple actors are perpetrating a robbery and one actor commits murder, all can be prosecuted with JE.
The ambiguous parameters of this law have been a cause of concern for many, and for a good reason; the law has resulted in individuals being given life sentences for as much as being present at a crime scene (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 2016). What’s more concerning surrounding the use of JE is the failure of the government to record its use. Despite multiple freedom of information requests, the crown prosecution service has produced little data on the use of JE; the little research we do have shows a massive overrepresentation of around half of JE prosecutions for murder and manslaughter comprising of BAME men
A supreme court amendment to legislation in 2016 created much more stringent requirements for using JE, where now the knowledge of a potential crime is insufficient, and there must be an active assisting of the crime. This correction of the government’s self-acknowledged ‘wrong turn’ was touted as a watershed moment in JE. However, in response to the government’s deliberately obstructionist stance towards the release of data on joint enterprise, multiple NGO reports have evidenced that there has been no change in the use of JE (Mills et al., 2022). Instead, the goalposts are shifted to accommodate the same number of defendants. This is supported by accounts of criminal justice practitioners, who suggest that the supreme court verdict has been a technicality, and defendants are now just labelled as principal offenders or otherwise shifted around to fit within the parameters of JE.
Joint enterprise not only contributes to the criminalisation of BAME men in the UK, but it also fits hand in glove with the labelling of groups of black people as ‘gangs’, a common use of language in JE cases. In one case, for example, a defendant reveals how he was constantly suggested to be in a ‘gang’ by a prosecution which wrapped up with the suggestion that “these people are not normal” (Mills et al., 2022). BAME men in the UK are labelled as at risk of gang activity and put on watchlists (Amnesty International, 2018); they are criminalised for the music they produce and listen to (Ilan, 2020), and even without breaking the law, are criminalised for the company they keep (Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 2016). When Victoria Derbyshire asked rapper AJ Tracey why a music video depicting himself and a group of friends was offering a “shout out to gangs in London”, what was seemingly an ignorant question exemplifies the stigma which BAME communities deal with from the police every day.
Amnesty International. (2018). Trapped in the Matrix: Secrecy, Stigma, and Bias in the Met’s Gangs Database.
Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. (2016). Dangerous Associations: Joint Enterprise, Gangs and Racism. In Research Findings. https://doi.org/10.1177/0264550516666745
Ilan, J. (2020). Digital Street Culture Decoded: Why criminalizing drill music is Street Illiterate and Counterproductive. British Journal of Criminology, 60(4), 994–1013. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azz086
Lammy, D. (2017). The Lammy Review. Ministry of Justice, 106. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report.pdf
Mills, H., Ford, M., & Grimshaw, R. (2022). The Usual Suspects?: Joint Enterprise Prosecutions Before and After the Supreme Court Ruling. https://doi.org/10.1108/13581980610711171