Murder charges and 'joint enterprise'

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
February 01, 2012, 4:03 PM GMT+0

62% Brits support joint 'enterprise' yet 51% would blame sole killer in some cases of gang murder

The majority of Britons have said that when it comes to handling a murder case, they support the concept of 'joint enterprise', a legal term which states that that anyone who agrees to commit a crime with another person becomes liable for everything that person does – for example, during a gang attack.

Despite this, however, when we asked who the public feels would be responsible for a death in a situation involving gang violence, over half said that the person who carried out the killing should be held solely responsible.

  • 62% support the 'joint enterprise' law in principle, which says that ‘anyone who agrees to commit a crime with another person becomes liable for everything that person does’
  • 21% oppose the idea in principle
  • However, when asked specifically about who should be charged in a scenario where a group of people get involved in a fight, and one person stabs and kills someone, 51% say that only the person who did the actual killing should be charged with murder
  • Compared to 43% who feel that the entire group should be charged

The Joint Enterprise or 'common purpose' principle has been in the spotlight of late, in light of the conviction of two men involved in the infamous racially-aggravated murder of East London teenager Stephen Lawrence. Gary Dobson and David Norris (pictured) were convicted of murder on the grounds that they were involved in the gang attack on Lawrence in 1993, though not on the grounds that they themselves carried out the actual murder.

Would a simpler law act as a deterrent?

Many believe that were the law simpler and clearer, it would serve as a deterrent to people involved in aiding these kinds of crimes, though a small percentage saying the law is already sufficiently clear.

  • 44% of people say the law on joint enterprise is not sufficiently clear
  • 14% disagree and feel that is it (although a notable 42% of people ‘don’t know’)
  • 46% of people feel that making the law simpler and clearer would act as a deterrent to people getting involved in gang crime
  • 37% believe making the law clearer would not deter gang members (17% are undecided)

Following the Stephen Lawrence convictions, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC, stated that he intends to spell out the point at which gang association in a serious offence such as murder becomes a definite criminal act, and has said that the current law is too complex and could put off witnesses from coming forward to give evidence for fear that they could face prosecution. A recent Commons justice select committee report on the issue also said that the law's complexity means that juries might 'find it impossible' to reach the correct verdict.

Regarding the Stephen Lawrence case, some commentators have argued in favour of the view that no killer 'should be able to escape punishment just because the jury [does] not know who had actually delivered the fatal blows'.

However, anti-'Joint Enterprise' organisation JENGbA actively campaigns against the law, and tries to help people who they believe to have been 'wrongly convicted'.

The organisation highlights cases in which, it says, “hundreds of prisoners…are serving lengthy sentences… for something they did not do, could not have foreseen, did not have the intention to do, and indeed in many cases tried to prevent from happening.'

See the survey details and full results here