The Government must clarify that only someone who makes a “significant contribution” to a crime should be convicted, or it risks more miscarriages of justice

Joint enterprise is the legal doctrine at the heart of a shocking miscarriage of justice that has seen thousands of people wrongfully jailed for life. It allows people to be given mandatory life sentences for crimes they did not commit or did not make a significant contribution to.

Many people have been wrongly sent to prison or given longer sentences than they should have been. Those charged with joint enterprise are assumed guilty by default and have to prove their innocence, turning the British legal system on its head. In effect, they are found guilty by association.

That’s why I chose to tighten up the law around joint enterprise when I was lucky enough to be drawn in the Private Members Ballot. Second Reading of my Joint Enterprise (Significant Contribution) Bill on Friday 2 February attracted cross-party support and widespread media interest, with positive coverage in the Times, Guardian, Independent, Mirror, Radio 4 and more.

The following week, Lord Daniel Finkelstein wrote in the Times that I was right to insist that only people who make a significant contribution to a crime should be convicted of it, adding: “I think there is something wrong with the law on joint enterprise – and we need to fix it.”

During the debate itself, his Conservative colleague Rob Butler described the “blatantly wrong” uses of joint enterprise he encountered while working in the criminal justice system, rightly warning this “carries the risk of diminishing confidence in our justice system”.

I was therefore disappointed that the Government stymied any progress of my one-line bill, which would simply add eight words to the Accessories and Abettors Act 1861 – “by making a significant contribution to its commission”. I was also frustrated that the Minister, Gareth Bacon, refused to take interventions during his speech, which Barry Sheerman correctly called out as “against the whole spirit of a Friday open debate”.

Explaining his reasons for rejecting my proposal, Minister Bacon claimed “this change could lead to difficulties in securing a conviction and therefore bringing offenders to justice” – the same logic used at the Criminal Justice Bill Committee earlier in the week by Minister Laura Farris, when she opposed Peter Dowd’s amendment seeking the same change to the 1861 Act: “We think that it is too difficult to require the prosecution to prove a significant contribution.”

But as I told the House at Second Reading, this is a “disturbing and worrying argument that amounts to an admission that, within our legal system, there is an area where we do not believe it is necessary to prove that a person must have made a significant contribution to a crime before locking them up and throwing away the key – and, indeed, that the Government are content with this state of affairs”.

The United Nations agrees, with their Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent issuing a statement expressing the “critical importance” of my Bill “towards addressing the treadmill of convictions that young people of African descent are disproportionately subjected to in the United Kingdom”. And they added that any such legislative change should “apply retrospectively to remedy the injustices perpetrated by a law that is directly in conflict with the people”.

As a working-class Black woman, I am proud of the support I have received from this revered and important body – and of that from the numerous legal experts, academics, charities, celebrities and campaigners who have helped me with this Bill and magnifying its impact, especially the wonderful women from JENGbA, the Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association campaign.

JENGbA will never stop fighting to end the cruel injustices suffered by their loved ones under the doctrine of joint enterprise, many of whom are serving life sentences for murders they made no significant contribution to. While I’m still an MP, I won’t stop fighting either.

At the Second Reading debate, Shadow Minister Janet Daby agreed this doctrine “needs to be reviewed” and that, in Government, our party “would look to reform joint enterprise”. This gives me clear hope for the future, but the time to act is now.

The Criminal Justice Bill is currently at Report and will soon move to the Lords. I will ensure that those eight words, which clarify that someone must make a “significant contribution” to a crime for them to be convicted of it, will continue to be debated every step of the way.

Peers from across the political divide are already among the 170 signatories of an open letter in support of this proposal. And with Lord Finkelstein joining the cause and growing interest among the many Members seriously concerned about institutional injustice, I believe that change – whether before or after a general election – is inevitable.

With public anger over miscarriages of justice at an all-time high, the Government must do the right thing and stop defending the indefensible, or soon find itself on the wrong side of history.

Kim Johnson MP

Kim Johnson is the Labour MP for Liverpool, Riverside, and was elected in 2019.