Caught in the dragnet

The controversial legal notion of ‘joint enterprise’ is being used against protesters and alleged gang members alike. Jon Robins reports
May 2012

Detective Chief Inspector John McFarlane recently cited the ‘joint enterprise’ rule as a ‘deterrent’ to young people who ‘think they will not be prosecuted or go to prison just because they did not deliver the fatal blow’. This arcane legal doctrine effectively means that anyone who agrees to commit a crime with another becomes liable for everything that person does during the offence.

McFarlane was talking about the case of Zac Olumegbon. At the end of last year, the Old Bailey heard that within moments of being chased down by teenagers, Zac – just 15 years old – lay dying on his back in the garden of a house within yards of his school in West Norwood, south London. His killers, thought to be members of the GAS (Guns and Shanks) gang, were given long periods of detention for his killing. Zac was associated with another gang, TN1 (Trust No One).

According to McFarlane, ‘The law on “joint enterprise” is clear and unforgiving – if you are with the knifeman in a murder case you too could be found guilty and sent to prison.’

‘Unforgiving’, yes, but it appears to be anything but ‘clear’. There is growing concern at the way the notion of ‘joint enterprise’ is being deployed by prosecuting authorities and the courts – and it’s not just being used against gangs. Other targets have included, for example, anti-tax avoidance protesters from UK Uncut at a demo at Fortnum & Mason. Ten defendants have already been given six-month conditional discharges and ordered to pay £1,000 court costs after being found guilty of intent to intimidate staff and shoppers. The court held that the 10 were involved in a ‘joint enterprise’ and responsible for the actions of others in the store by their presence. The cases of a further 19 were due to be heard as Red Pepper went to press.

Not innocent but not murderers

Earlier this year, the justice select committee found joint enterprise ‘so confusing’ that it said legislation was necessary to ensure justice for both victims and defendants and to stop so many cases reaching the Court of Appeal.

The Prison Reform Trust, in its evidence to the committee, memorably damned ‘joint enterprise’ as serving as ‘a dragnet’ to bring individuals into the criminal justice system who ‘do not necessarily need to be there’. The Committee on the Reform of Joint Enterprise – a group comprising lawyers, academics and ‘otherwise concerned individuals and groups’ – told MPs that joint enterprise convictions resulted in ‘the labelling of individuals who – albeit not entirely innocent – cannot properly be called “murderers”.’

Gloria Morrison is active in the campaigning group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association). She became involved as a result of the experience of her son’s best friend. Six years ago Kenneth Alexander was given a life sentence following a fatal stabbing. As a recent BBC Panorama programme examining the case put it, it was ‘Alexander’s role in ringing friends to call in reinforcements for a possible confrontation that provided the prosecution with his “joint enterprise”. That he knew some of his mates carried knives, even though he never did, was also a factor in his conviction.’

What about the deterrent effect? Surely such convictions send out a strong message to young people getting involved in gangs and carrying knives? ‘We are not talking about gangs,’ Morrison says. ‘We are talking about groups of young people who are together. The idea that this is to tackle gangs is a misunderstanding. This law is not working.’

As part of London against Injustice, Morrison put an advertisement in the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time calling for prisoners convicted under joint enterprise to attend a meeting. She describes the response as ‘overwhelming’. ‘Some 275 prisoners have contacted us. We believe it is the tip of an iceberg.’

Of those 275 cases, at least 152 are from black and minority ethnic communities. ‘Overwhelmingly, our prisoners come from poor neighbourhoods and because of cuts to legal aid they have often been failed by poor legal representation,’ says Morrison. ‘We have people with absolutely no involvement with a crime – none – doing a life sentence.’

Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association: and blog at

Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of

rose 24 May 2012, 20.18

hi – please note JENGbA’s website is actually and our blog is at

thanks :)

Justice4Jonathan 25 May 2012, 12.03

Excellent article. It is imperative that people understand that the joint enterprise law is being used against groups of ordinary people and that because of this almost anyone can become affected by it. The authorities who defend it’s use to tackle gangs have so far not produced any report of it’s effectiveness or any guidelines to ensure correct application of this legal doctrine.

Andrew Green 25 May 2012, 12.11

Yet again a commentator has failed to understand the problem with the joint enterprise doctrine is not so much its failure to differentiate between those who are completely guilty and those who are a bit less guilty, but the kind of evidence admitted by use of the doctrine and the inferences which prosecutors and judges invite juries to draw from it. All prosecutors have to prove is that defendants had foresight that someone else linked to them might commit a violent crime. Evidence of links frequently include presence at the scene or the exchange of phone calls at the time. While full participation in serious crimes can be inferred from such ‘evidence’ alone, both those who are responsible for only a lesser crime and, more importantly, those who are totally innocent, will continue to be convicted of the most serious of crimes. Organisations dominated by lawyers and legal academics like the Committee on the Reform of Joint Enterprise continue to mislead the public by assuming that all those charged are guilty of something, and ignoring the urgent and frightening problem of the frequent conviction of the innocent. Jon Robins however ought to be aware of the problem of evidence because he published my article on this subject on the Justice Gap website at

KadMar 25 May 2012, 18.44

Sorry Andrew Green I fell asleep half way through your comment – but isn’t “a bit less guilty” similar to “a bit pregnant”, and isn’t your own organisation led by a legal academic, i.e. you?

JordanCunliffeInnocent 25 May 2012, 19.28

It is time to stop talking so much about the problem with JE and time to start doing something about it. The DPP have promised guidelines but as yet they have not been produced. In the meantime more innocent people are at risk of being convicted of a serious crime they simply did not commit, had no knowledge of or even any foresight that it may occur. It is not productive to lock up large numbers of young people for 15 to 40 years minimum tarrif, knowing they have not murdered anyone. All this is done at great expense, not only finacially to the taxpayer, but emotionally to whole families and entire communities. Crispin Blunt may not want to tackle this issue in the near future, but the longer this is left the more devastating this will be to the integrity of our Justice system, the more devestating it will be to those in Government who acknowledged the problem but refused to address it.

gratifymenow 26 May 2012, 01.27

The only real deterrent to any crime is the probability of being caught. Only very disturbed people don’t care if they get caught after committing a serious offence. The Policeman’s comments are disingenuous – he knows the reality and how many children know what the situation with Joint Enterprise really is? Once they have committed the crime and been sentenced it is too late and as we have seen in many cases the government is so embarrassed by the way we are treating schoolchildren that these cases are not receiving the press they should – a bit like the Police receiving bribes and cosying up with the press – so how can these be considered as deterrents when nobody really knows what the situation is? All the Police and Judicial system is doing is to provide slave labour for private prisons for the next 10 to 15 years. Shame on them all and the rotten system that allows them to abuse young children in this obvious and cruel way for crimes they have not committed. Once upon a time it was acceptable to do this to people with a different coloured skin, now they are doing it to our own children!

Andrew Green 28 May 2012, 09.34

In response to ‘Kadmar’: I’m sorry that what I wrote was too difficult for you. I’m not a legal academic, and I don’t lead INNOCENT, if that’s the organisation to which you refer. But I’m glad you agree with me on the ‘not innocent but not murderers’ or ‘bit less guilty’ point.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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