MPs have called for an urgent review of the joint-enterprise law after initial research found black and mixed-race men are disproportionately convicted through the doctrine.
The House of Commons justice committee said the Law Commission should consider not using joint enterprise in murder cases and instead charge secondary participants with manslaughter or a lesser offence.
The committee is concerned about the fact that in murder cases judicial sentencing discretion is strictly limited by statute.
And evidence, through preliminary findings from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, shows the proportion of black and mixed-race young men serving very long sentences for joint-enterprise offences (out of all those who are serving time under joint enterprise) is ‘much higher’ than their representation in the general population or the overall prison population.
Committee chair Sir Alan Beith said the committee’s disquiet at the functioning of the joint-enterprise law has grown since it last reported on the subject in 2011.
‘We are particularly concerned about joint enterprise in murder cases,’ he said.
‘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 said the Law Commission should be asked to consider the mens rea threshold for establishing the culpability of secondary participants.
There is also concern at the ‘limited attention and priority’ given to recording information about the use of the doctrine.
Beith said: ‘We also call for research to provide information covering the last five years, and for the Crown Prosecution Service to monitor and analyse the way prosecutors are following the guidance in cases where the joint-enterprise doctrine is used.’
Witnesses who gave evidence to the committee used the metaphor of a ‘dragnet’ to ‘hoover up’ young people from ethnic minority communities and impose harsh penalties on them.
Beith said it was ‘noticeable’ that black and mixed-race young men were disproportionately represented among those convicted under joint enterprise. He warned against using the doctrine to deter young people from being involved in criminal gang activities.
‘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.’