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In February 2016, one historic judgement passed by the Supreme Court and the Privy Council reversed 30 years of English case law. Research by Dr Beatrice Krebs, Associate Professor at the School of Law, helped abolish the doctrine of 'joint enterprise' in murder cases.

Joint Criminal Enterprise

Imagine you are asked to defend the following case: the defendant and his friend agree to break into a neighbour’s house, with the intention of stealing. However, the defendant is aware that his friend has violent tendencies and foresees that if there is any resistance shown by the neighbour, there is the risk that his friend might attack the neighbour with the intention of causing serious harm.

The defendant and his friend did visit the neighbour’s house and during the robbery, the friend attacked the neighbour causing a fatal injury. In this scenario, can the defendant be found guilty of murder because, despite foreseeing the possibility that his friend would commit a potentially more serious crime, and having done so, he continued to participate in the robbery?

In the past, the law said yes. Collectively known as “joint enterprise”, this is a principle of common law dating back hundreds of years by which a person may be found guilty of another person's crime if each were acting together for a joint purpose. Beatrice's work to show the injustice of this 'Joint Enterprise' rule was used in a high-profile appeal case to the Supreme Court.

"It was wrong to equate foresight of a killing by the principal offender with intention that the principal offender commit the killing. Consequently the threshold for conviction of secondary parties was lower than that required for convicting the person who actually wielded the knife or gun."

Change in law

Beatrice's research was used by lawyers working on the case. It helped persuade judges to rule that only those who intend to seriously injure or kill someone and those who intend to assist or encourage others to kill or seriously injure should be convicted of murder.

Defendants’ foresight of the possibility that their associate would commit the offence can no longer be treated as equating to intent, although foresight can be regarded as evidence of intent.

In the wake of this decision, a large number of murder convictions in England and Wales may need to be re-examined, and MPs have debated the issues in the House of Commons.

"I am proud to have been part of a team that fought for the correction of this unfair law. At the University of Reading, we strive to have a positive impact on wider society. The impact we are having proves that anything is possible.”

Not only is Beatrice making an impact on the development of criminal law doctrine and practice in the area of accomplice liability, but this work is directly informing her teaching of our undergraduate law students. Students of criminal law benefit from her extensive insight and experience which feed directly into their learning experience.

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