My dad used a phrase throughout our childhood to teach my brother and I about the importance of making friends with the right people and staying out of trouble: if you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows. He encouraged us to avoid hanging around with the wrong groups of people at school, and made it perfectly clear that if you mix with trouble makers, you can easily implicate yourself in the trouble just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In Britain, joint enterprise allows several people to be charged equally for a crime regardless of the unique role each individual played. For example, if you find yourself in a group of four and a fight breaks out with another group, if one member of your group murders a member of the opposing group – you may find yourself being charged along with the murderer for the crime regardless of whether you did the actual killing or not. Joint enterprise assumes that other members of the group had prior knowledge of the intentions and are in some way encouraging, or not willing to stop the crime from taking place. The law is by no means an old one, it’s over 300 years old, but what implications does it have on modern crime?
Although joint enterprise can be applied to many crimes, it has most famously been used in cases to prosecute against gangs of young males involved in homicides, rioting and other serious offences. In the case of Ben Kinsella, the 16 year old student stabbed to death in Islington, London in June of 2008, all three of his attackers were given life sentences, despite the fact that it is unclear which of the three actually committed the murder. Joint enterprise has also been present in cases such as that of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and in the London riots.
…Joint enterprise assumes that other members of the group had prior knowledge…
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2005 and 2013, there have been 4,590 convictions in homicide cases with two or more defendants So, is joint enterprise such a bad thing? It means that an entire group of involved individuals will face the harsh wrath of the judicial system if they choose to become embroiled in a fight or altercation. Surely this makes an excellent deterrent when it comes to gang culture and subsequent crime?
Many would argue however that innocent people, unaware of what their comrades may be planning, face being unfairly prosecuted as equals despite having no prior knowledge about what their co-defendant had intended to happen. In the BBC3 documentary, Guilty by Association, we follow the trial of Alex Henry, who in 2013 was involved in a fight in which one man was killed and another seriously injured. He and his family were adamant he was not the killer and had no intention of killing anyone, but the courts found him guilty under the joint enterprise law and sentenced him to 19 years behind bars. His family continue to dispute his sentence and work together with the Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association campaign to spread the word about similar cases.
…innocent people, unaware of their comrades may be planning, face being unfairly prosecuted as equals…
However harsh and unfair the joint enterprise law may feel to those with loved ones spending prolonged periods of time behind bars for crimes they did not directly commit, it does act as a huge deterrent to those considering committing crimes as part of a gang. With families like the Kinsella’s backing the law, it really does put that old phrase firmly in the collective consciousness – if you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.