Liberty takes CPS to court over racism in Joint Enterprise prosecutions

Posted on 07 Apr 2022

Liberty is taking legal action as research suggests that those prosecuted under controversial joint enterprise doctrine are disproportionately Black.

Liberty is taking legal action against the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice over the ‘discredited’ joint enterprise law.

The law has led to people being convicted of murder or manslaughter even if they did not play a decisive role, if they are deemed to have “encouraged or assisted” the perpetrator.

Bystanders, or people involved in much lesser criminal offences, have been convicted of murder or manslaughter under the controversial law.

Liberty says that the use of racist stereotypes and gang narratives could be leading to young Black men being unfairly prosecuted.

Liberty is acting on behalf of JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association), a grassroots campaign group that supports approximately 1400 prisoners (mainly those serving life sentences), all of whom have been convicted under the joint enterprise doctrine.

The joint enterprise doctrine is frequently used to prosecute young Black men in ‘gang’ related cases, in which whole groups are convicted of a crime committed by one person on the back of prejudicial evidence that they are in a gang.  Liberty has warned that this ‘evidence’ may often be inaccurate and likely to be premised on racist stereotypes.

In 2016, the Supreme Court reconsidered the joint enterprise doctrine, and found that the justice system had “taken a wrong turn”, with the law on joint enterprise being misinterpreted for years. However, despite high hopes, this did not steer the law back on course or rectify the wrongful convictions it created.

A number of studies indicate that joint enterprise prosecutions are more likely to target young Black men. One study found that, of young male prisoners serving 15 years or more for joint enterprise convictions, 38.5% were white and 57.4% were from Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority backgrounds (BAME) – despite less than 6% of the population being from BAME groups. Another study found that joint enterprise prisoners who identify as BAME were significantly younger than their white counterparts and were serving longer sentences on average.

In spite of these concerns, in a letter to Liberty the Crown Prosecution Service admitted that neither they nor, to the best of their knowledge, the MoJ record or monitors data regarding joint enterprise prosecutions.

Liberty say that in failing to do so, the CPS and MoJ are breaching their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

They say that, contrary to the Public Sector Equality Duty, neither has taken any steps to ascertain the extent of, and eliminate, any race discrimination in the use of joint enterprise laws.

In a letter to the CPS and MoJ threatening legal action, Liberty called on the bodies to immediately start recording data on:

  • The number of joint enterprise prosecution brought for offences involving violence by area
  •  The ethnicity and age of those prosecuted
  • Whether any ‘gang’ evidence was relied on by the Crown in those cases
  • And the outcomes of those prosecutions.

Lana Adamou, a lawyer at Liberty, said:

“We all want our communities to be safe, and for our laws to treat us equally. But joint enterprise is overwhelmingly used against people from marginalised communities, especially young Black men, and drags people unfairly into the criminal justice system.

“Campaigners have been raising concerns for years about racism and joint enterprise prosecutions, and the Justice Committee recommended as early as 2012 that the CPS and MoJ should start collating data about joint enterprise prosecutions. It’s completely unacceptable that there is still no official data being recorded about how the doctrine is used, and who it is used against. By failing to do so, the justice system has been recklessly sweeping thousands of young black men into the prison system.

“The CPS and MoJ must urgently begin recording this data so that any race discrimination in the use of joint enterprise is no longer hidden from view and that steps can be taken to eliminate it. There should be no place for racism to hide in the criminal justice system.”

Gloria Morrison, co-founder of JENGbA, said:

“JENGbA have been campaigning for many years highlighting the racist application of joint enterprise to over-criminalise secondary parties from marginalised communties.

“It is common law, used against common people, that makes no common sense.

“JENGbA want to thank Liberty for their support in challenging the use of this doctrine and who it targets.”

Case studies        

Sheena’s son was 14 when he was convicted of murder under joint enterprise. He was present when a 19-year old boy stabbed another in the leg following a fight, leaving him with fatal wounds. Although Sheena’s son didn’t stab the boy, he and three friends were all also given life sentences. He has now been in prison for eight years.

Sheena said: “The police tried to say it was a revenge killing or a postcode thing, as Kyefer was stabbed six weeks before. But in reality the police had the name of the person who stabbed Kyefer, and he was a local lad who lived in the same postcode!

“Kyefer has always looked a lot older than he is, towering over his peers from a young age, so he was treated during the whole trial as if he were an adult – not just 14 years of age.

“To date, Kyefer has spent one birthday and one Christmas out of eight in solitary confinement.”

Les’s grandson, Sebastian, was 18 when he was involved in a fight after a night out with a group of young men he barely knew. When a young man was killed, Sebastian – along with five others – was convicted of murder, with a minimum sentence of 17 years.

Les said: “It’s devastated this family. The whole family has suffered. It doesn’t seem like justice – it seems like retribution. If he’d done what they accused him of, I could live with it. But he didn’t.”

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