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.’