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Criminal law: Murder law for joint suspects deemed 'too complicated'

The House of Commons Justice Select Committee have concluded that the law relating to murder cases involving multiple perpetrators is too complicated and needs revising.

The so-called 'joint enterprise' cases, which often involve gang crime are particularly complex and MPs have urged that prosecutors are given new guidance to help clarify the situation.

The legal principle of 'joint enterprise' means that anyone who agrees or goes along with a crime committed by another is equally responsible in the eyes of the law and may be charged with the same offence.

In December last year, five teenagers were given lengthy sentences for the murder of a 15-year-old boy who was stabbed to death outside his school. All five were handed down similar sentences, despite the fact that only one would have inflicted the fatal blow.

Speaking after the case, Detective Chief Inspector John McFarlane of the Metropolitan Police described the law on joint enterprise and commented on some of the difficulties faced by juries.

"The law on joint enterprise is clear and unforgiving: if you are with the knife man in a murder case you too could be found guilty and sent to prison," he said.

"This area of law is vital to ensuring the prosecution and conviction of criminals involved in gang-related violence in particular, but is now so complex that juries may find it impossible to understand how to reach the right verdict," he added.

Joint enterprise is designed to deter people from getting involved on the fringes of criminal activity and criminal groups including gangs. However, the law creates uncertainties which makes decision-making hard for juries, and can act to deter witnesses from coming forward to give vital evidence.

Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the committee looking into the matter said action should be taken immediately.

"[The Government] should not wait for a general review of the law of homicide which few governments would be willing to undertake."

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