Could killers convicted under 'joint enterprise' walk free from jail?

19 February 2016
What was claimed

Hundreds of convicted killers could be released from prison after a recent change to the law on 'joint enterprise'.

Our verdict

People convicted of a 'joint enterprise' killing can appeal but the Supreme Court stressed when changing the law that it wouldn't automatically overturn all such cases. It depends whether the change would be relevant to a particular case and on there being a "substantial injustice".

“Hundreds of convicted criminals including murderers could walk free after the Supreme Court ruled the law of 'joint enterprise' has been wrong interpreted by judges for 30 years”.

Daily Mail, 18 February 2016

“600 prisoners including Stephen Lawrence’s killers may walk under new rules”

Daily Mirror, 19 February 2016

Yesterday the country’s highest court revised the ‘joint enterprise’ law on which some murder convictions have been based.

But the Supreme Court stressed that a “general re-opening of old cases” based on the error wouldn’t happen.

‘Joint enterprise’ convictions

The court’s change is about the law on being an ‘accessory’ to a crime. This is the legal rule that someone who assists or encourages a crime is as guilty as the person carrying it out.

Before yesterday’s ruling the courts had said that where two people set out on a joint enterprise to commit crime A, and the second person had “foreseen the possibility” that the first person might go on to commit crime B, they are guilty of crime B as an accessory.

The judgment clarified that the second’s person’s guilt actually requires intention, rather than foresight of the offence—and the court pointed out that the two are not the same thing.

Old convictions may be appealed, but won’t necessarily succeed

This change doesn’t mean that all previous convictions arrived at by applying the law as it was previously understood will be overturned.

In its ruling the court said that those convicted under the old interpretation of the law who are out of time to appeal can apply for “exceptional leave to appeal”.

But, importantly, exceptional leave will only be granted where “substantial injustice can be demonstrated”.

It remains unclear how many old cases will be granted the right to appeal. It will depend on what exactly happened in each one.

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