Last week I attended the Centre's Birmingham launch of our report Dangerous associations: Joint enterprise, gangs and racism. Just under 40 people braved the torrential downpour to hear report authors Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke of Manchester Metropolitan University discuss the findings of the research, which looked into the use of the Joint Enterprise doctrine by the police and prosecution as a strategy for arrest and conviction. Ultimately this contributes to the disproportionate numbers of black people serving long prison sentences.
As Patrick Williams' and Becky Clarke's research shows, disproportionate numbers of black people are convicted under joint enterprise. The evidence of association and foresight offered by the prosecution was often based on supposed gang affiliation. In the areas studied, Manchester, Nottingham and London, the gang databases are majority black in composition, with no clear justification for this ethnic disproportionality.
The audience was made up mainly of the families and friends of those serving long sentences, and about 80 per cent were black. As I listened to the discussion develop, it became obvious that having had their hopes raised by the recent Supreme Court judgement, R v Jogee, many of those campaigning for the release of loved ones now face a David versus Goliath battle to achieve justice.
Consider this: the Supreme Court ruling noted that the legal profession had taken a wrong turn, and as a result, the joint enterprise doctrine has been incorrectly interpreted for more than 30 years. Highly paid professionals, with positions of significant social power, have made a 30-year mistake leading to the possibility that hundreds of people have been locked away for decades as a result of an offence they did not commit.
All courts were faithfully applying the law since 1984, but, as it turns out, having the foresight that an offence might take place is not the same as having the intent - foresight being the main point of argument for many of those seeking to appeal. Matt Dyson, of the Cambridge University Faculty of Law, gives a very clear explanation of the issue in this video.
At the Birmingham launch, one parent said that they had approached a solicitor for advice to help with an appeal and the reply had been that the initial fee would be around £3,000. This fee may seem perfectly reasonable, but as Sophie Walker Executive Director of the Centre for Criminal Appeals (CCA) has informed me, there is some funding available for appeals, although it is not generous. The campaign group JENGbA has expressed concern about some of the legal advice being offered. Any family who is asked for a fee should inform the CCA to ensure they are not being misled.
There are, of course, legal complexities here. The courts were applying the law as it stood. Each case is very different and it might be expected that the convicted take the initiative. However, it could be argued, having governed over such a serious mistake, the state would take responsibility for its generation-long collective error and begin to review all of the cases where foresight was offered as a point of law by the prosecution.
Yet, instead, it is expected that each person who was convicted under joint enterprise and believes themselves to be innocent to press their own case. So having been placed on a database for a minor offence or indeed no offence at all, or having known the wrong person, or having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in spite of the Supreme Court ruling, many still now face a long road to prove their innocence.
This blog was updated on 7 May to reflect information received from the Centre for Criminal Appeals