The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has completed a study which has shown that more than 4,500 people have been prosecuted for 'joint enterprise' murders, where several people are convicted of the same offence, reports the BBC.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism used Freedom of Information Act requests to gather data on the number of murder prosecutions involving two or more defendants for the same crime.
Their study revealed that there were 4,590 prosecutions for murder between 2005 and 2013 with at least two defendants, and of those 1,853 involved four or more defendants.
The use of 'joint enterprise' in criminal law derives from the Victorian case of R v Swindall and Osborne (1846) when two 'cart drivers' agreed to race one another on a public road. One driver hit and killed a pedestrian. It was unclear afterwards who had driven the cart involved in the accident, and so both were held jointly liable for the death as they had equally encouraged one another in the race.
In modern criminal law the doctrine of joint enterprise has been defined by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as being capable of applying 'where two or more persons are involved in an offence or offences'. Parties to any offences may be principals, or secondary parties. Secondary parties are those who might aid, abet or encourage.
Circumstances for joint enterprise
In modern law, joint enterprise need not be pre-planned, and the CPS has identified three situations in which joint enterprise can apply, taken from the case of R v ABCD :
In the first situation two people join to commit a single crime, and carry out elements of the crime together. In the eyes of the law they are joint principals.
In the second situation, the secondary party assists or encourages the principle to commit a crime. Although the principle commits the crime and is present at the scene, the secondary plays a major role, and as a result can be held jointly liable for the principal's actions. An example would be when the secondary acts as a lookout while the principal commits a crime they have agreed upon.
In the final example, the secondary is again only an encourager or assistant. However, the principal commits a crime that goes beyond what was agreed upon with the secondary. An example is when the principal and secondary agree to commit a robbery, but during the course of the robbery the principal attacks and kills the victim. Whether the secondary can be held liable for murder will depend on whether they could have reasonably foreseen the murder taking place. Possession of a lethal weapon might in such circumstances persuade a jury that the secondary foresaw that lethal violence might be the end result of their joint-enterprise crime.
Joint enterprise is controversial because it can result in the prosecution of associates who may have had little or no knowledge of the offence until it took place.
This has prompted 37 of 45 lawyers interviewed by the BIJ during the compilation of their report to express concern about the widespread use of joint enterprise.
The BBC interviewed Professor Bob Sullivan, an expert in criminal law at Sussex University. He said that a young man whose friends get involved in a fight could end up convicted of murder if he stays at the scene to support his friends.
"[He could end up being convicted of murder] if the prosecution can prove that he foresaw the slight risk of someone being seriously harmed," Professor Sullivan told the BBC.
"That means an automatic life sentence, and if a knife is used, a minimum term of 25 years," he added.
In response, the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the CPS Alison Saunders said that joint enterprise was a vital tool for prosecuting serious crime, and that innocent bystanders would not be prosecuted.