The joint enterprise ruling should be celebrated not feared
Depending on who you listen to, yesterday's Supreme Court judgement that Joint Enterprise rules have been wrongly interpreted for the past 30 years is either a huge victory for justice, or a get out of jail free card for violent thugs.
As the news broke yesterday morning, campaigners and lawyers took to social media to welcome the ruling, with the legal commentator David Allen Green, describing it as being "one of the most important criminal appeal cases of recent times." While the solicitors for the appellant in yesterday's case said they were glad to have played a role in correcting an unjust law.
It's worth watching this footage of Lord Neuberger's judgement as he discusses how the law has been misinterpreted for decades, to get a good idea of just how big a moment this was. At 7.40 you can hear an audible gasp of shock.
Joint Enterprise – where a group of individuals can be held liable for crimes committed by just one person, even though they may have played different roles in the crime – has been heavily criticised by campaigners for years. In 2014, MPs called for an urgent review of the law over fears that people could be serving life sentences for playing a "minor" part in a crime.
There have also been serious concerns raised about the impact the law has on black and minority ethnic communities.
Leading the campaign for reform was an organisation called JENGbA, a group of family members of some of those prosecuted under Joint Enterprise. The group said the judgement vindicated the work they have carried out over the last five years.
"JENGbA has achieved one of its central aims, but our job is far from over. There are huge numbers of prisoners, many serving life sentences, who have been convicted under a law which the Supreme Court has acknowledged was a “wrong turn”. This judgement will offer new hope to them, to their families and their friends. We will fight to overturn every wrongful conviction.”
Yet, a quick glance at many of today's newspapers would lead you to believe that something terrible had happened in the courts yesterday. The front page of the Daily Mirror screamed "Getting Away With Murder" and The Sun warned that Stephen Lawrence's killers could now go free, a line echoed by coverage in the Daily Mail.
But as Carl Gardener, a former government lawyer, pointed out on Twitter last night, the ruling is unlikely to affect the convictions of Lawrence's killers Gary Dobson and David Norris.
— Carl Gardner (@carlgardner) February 18, 2016
There are certain to be some of those imprisoned under Joint Enterprise who have been rightly punished for the crimes they have committed, but if even one person is serving a life sentence because the law has been wrongly interpreted, yesterday's judgement should be celebrated not criticised.