MPs urge 'joint enterprise' review
A shake-up of so-called joint enterprise legislation - which was used to convict the killers of black teenager Stephen Lawrence - could be needed in murder cases to stop "minor" players from being condemned to spend life in prison for another person's crime, a group of MPs has said.
The Justice Committee said official law reform advisers should consider the proposition that it should not be possible to charge with murder, but only with manslaughter or a lesser offence, any secondary participants in joint enterprise cases who did not encourage or assist the perpetration of the murder.
Joint enterprise law allows for several people to be charged with the same offence, even though they may have played different roles in the crime. While it can apply to all offences, it has recently been used as a way to prosecute murder - especially in cases involving gangs of young men.
High-profile cases where the law was used included that of David Norris and Gary Dobson, who were convicted under joint enterprise for the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence. Mr Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of youths in a racially-motivated murder at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, when he was 18.
However, the Justice Committee did hear evidence from Cambridge academic Dr Matthew Dyson who questioned whether joint enterprise did apply to the Lawrence case in the sense considered in the report.
The group of MPs called for the Law Commission to undertake an urgent review of the law of joint enterprise in murder cases.
Committee chair Sir Alan Beith said: "There are clearly cases in which joint enterprise is necessary to ensure that guilty people are convicted.
"We are particularly concerned about joint enterprise in murder cases.
"The mandatory life sentence for murder means that an individual can be convicted and given a life sentence without the prosecution having to demonstrate that they had any intention of murder or serious bodily harm being committed, and where their involvement in a murder committed by someone else was minor and peripheral."
The Committee also found that a large proportion of those convicted of joint enterprise offences are young black and mixed race men.
Research seen by the committee showed 37.2% of those serving long sentences for joint enterprise offences are black/black British, 11 times the proportion of black/black British people in the general population and almost three times as many as in the overall prison population.
There is also a higher proportion of mixed race prisoners convicted of joint enterprise offences than there are in the general prison population.
Sir Alan said: "It is noticeable that black and mixed race young men are disproportionately represented among those convicted under joint enterprise.
"Some have argued that the doctrine has an important effect in deterring young people from getting involved in criminal gang activities, but others are sceptical about this.
"We say in our report that there is a real danger in justifying the joint enterprise doctrine on the basis that it sends a signal or delivers a wider social message, rather than on the basis that it is necessary to ensure people are found guilty of offences in accordance with the law as it stands."
Another high-profile joint enterprise murder case was the killing of Garry Newlove, who was attacked in August 2007 after he confronted a group outside his house. He died two days later.
In January 2008, three teenagers Adam Swellings, 19, Stephen Sorton, 17, and Jordan Cunliffe, 16, were jailed for life for the murder.
Cunliffe's mother Janet claims that although he was present at the scene he did not take part in the murder, and has campaigned against joint enterprise laws.
Justice Minister Mike Penning said: "Joint enterprise law has enabled some of the most serious offenders to be brought to justice. It ensures that if a crime is committed by two or more people, all those involved can potentially be charged and convicted of that offence.
"Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the courts.
"We will look carefully at the Justice Committee recommendations and will respond formally in due course."