Jimmy McGovern explains the joint enterprise law that inspired Common

Starring Nico Mirallegro, Michael Gambon, Danny Mays and Robert Pugh, the one-off drama explores the fatal flaws of the English Law...

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WHAT is Joint Enterprise (also known as common purpose)? “The funny thing is it’s now a law. Judicial decisions and opinions expressed by judges have come together and formed it. I remember as a boy at school there would often be fights and we’d sort them out after school – Boy A would go with Boy B to a park and have a fight. Boy A would have his friends and Boy B would have his, and if one boy had accidentally killed another in that fight, there would have been uproar, of course, but they would not have all faced prison. Nowadays you would face life in prison because you went with the common purpose of starting this fight knowing that one boy would attack another boy. If you egged on your boy and he killed another boy, you’d go to prison for life.” 

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HOW is it punished? “There are people inside and they’re not inside officially because of joint enterprise,” explains McGovern. If a boy has been killed, a charge of joint enterprise murder might be levied. He continues: “Everybody remotely connected with this crime will be charged with murder and face life imprisonment. They will probably do a deal whereby the principle assailants will accept life for murder and the co-conspirators will have to accept GBH or conspiracy to commit GBH. In other words, they confront these people with a serious charge – murder – knowing they will accept a lesser charge, GBH.” 

HOW do you defend yourself? “Joint enterprise murder is impossible to defend yourself against. This is from a letter from Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice to campaigning group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association): ‘To be clear, a joint enterprise does not require some sort of formal plan. An agreement to commit an offence can arise on the spur of the moment. It does not necessarily require anything being said. It could, for example, be made with a knowing look.’ So, if you happen to be there when somebody lands a blow and that person kills somebody, if you looked at that person before they landed the blow it goes to a jury and that jury have to decide whether that look was knowing or not. You cannot defend yourself against it.” 

WHEN did you get involved? “I got this letter. It explained that there was a woman who had a person in her family who’d been in prison for a crime he didn’t commit because of joint enterprise. The postcode was wrong and it had taken a month to get to me – that’s the only reason I picked up the phone. Within five minutes I was ensnared and heard myself saying, ‘I’ll come round and talk to you.’ This other person was there – the mother of Jordan Cunliffe – and of all the cases of injustice I’ve ever come across, that’s the most unjust because he’s definitely innocent. He’s done the equivalent of a fifteen-year-old boy’s life sentence.”  

HOW do you tell this story in Common? “Johnjo is a younger boy and gets asked by these older boys for a lift to the pizza shop. What he doesn’t know is one of the boys is going in there to sort out this other boy. They go in, Boy A fights Boy B, in the course of which another boy who’s been with their group pulls out a knife and stabs an innocent bystander and kills him. Johnjo believes in the law and makes a full statement. He didn’t see the crime, didn’t witness the crime, didn’t even know the crime was going to happen but because he drove them, he faces life in prison. There’s only one culprit – the boy who wielded the knife – but all four face life. I would say Johnjo is informed by lots of cases.”

WHAT about the families of the victim? “I’m old enough and wise enough to know that there is no greater injustice in the world than to have your life snatched away. The greatest injustice has been perpetrated on that boy in the pizza shop who died and his parents and that is crucial. In the course of the drama we visit that and explore it – the huge impact of an event like that.”

WHY have you chosen to write about it? “I hope that the BBC schedule it wisely and we get people talking about it. And in an ideal world, a question is asked in Parliament.”  

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Common is on this Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC1. Watch the trailer below: