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Criminal Justice

Government challenged on controversial joint enterprise laws affecting young adults  

Helen Mills from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) shares her thoughts on how joint enterprise laws disadvantage Black and minority ethnic young adults. CCJS is a member of the T2A (Transition to Adulthood) Alliance, a Barrow Cadbury Trust campaign that makes the case for a distinct approach to young adults in the justice system.  


A call for meaningful action on joint enterprise was made in the House of Lords some weeks ago, amid new evidence that current laws act in a discriminatory way and require a parliamentary response.  Parliamentarians from all three main political parties raised questions following Lord Woodley asking the government: 

“What steps they are taking to address concerns that joint enterprise case law operates in a harsh way against young black men.” 

New data 

The question followed new data on joint enterprise released by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) last month. The data is the first official research in over a decade about joint enterprise, the common term for the set of legal principles that allows more than one person to be prosecuted in relation to the same incident. 

The CPS monitoring pilot, which tracked homicide and attempted homicide in six CPS areas, found Black young men aged 18-25 were the largest demographic prosecuted. Referring to the findings, Lord Woodley said: 

“Black people are 16 times -I repeat, 16 times- more likely than white people to be prosecuted for homicide or attempted homicide under joint enterprise laws. It is absolutely shocking, as I am sure your Lordships all agree. Does the Minister therefore agree that this proves indisputably that joint enterprise is being used in a racist way by prosecutors, and basically as a dragnet to hoover up black urban youth?”  

The CPS findings confirm those of previous studies. Last year research from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, found these trends have been consistent over at least the last decade.  

Calls for the CPS to monitor joint enterprise prosecutions date back to a Justice Committee brief inquiry in 2014.  However, the CPS only agreed to monitor joint enterprise prosecutions earlier this year following legal action by the campaign group JENGbA. Their case drew on several Barrow Cadbury Trust funded research publications, including Dangerous Associations and the Usual Suspects 

Next steps 

In Thursday’s debate, Lord Marks of Henley on Thames questioned the use of racialised ‘gang’ strategies in the prosecution of groups. Several peers also raised concerns about the high threshold for appeal faced by those convicted under controversial laws.   

Pressed about what the government is doing in response to the data, Lord Bellamy conceded: 

“It is an essential part of our criminal law to have a joint enterprise doctrine. The question is: where are the edges to the doctrine?” 

He set out plans for the CPS to extend its monitoring of joint enterprise across England and Wales and to review its guidance on ‘gangs’. Both are welcome. However, neither are new actions, having previously been agreed in the legal settlement reached with JENGbA.   

Helen Mills, Head of Programmes at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, who are currently supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust on this issue, said: 

“We welcome the questions Lord Woodley and other peers are raising about young adults and joint enterprise. They demonstrate significant concerns, and questions about joint enterprise are a cross party issue. This requires the government to step up and commit to a comprehensive inquiry to address whether the current laws and practices underpinning them are fit for purpose, and what a fair, just approach to prosecuting groups looks like. They should not be to be dismissed by government as simply a legal matter to be left to the courts.”