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The tabloid newspaper reporting of the Supreme Court joint enterprise ruling is really, really bad

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Misguided media riles lawyers

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Lawyers have formed a united front against shoddy legal news reporting, as the tabloid press took aim at the highest court in the land.

Yesterday, Lord Neuberger — on behalf of the Supreme Court — gave the much awaited judgment in the case of R v Jogee, which has fundamentally changed the law of joint enterprise.

Since the 1980s, to be convicted under the doctrine, the prosecution had to prove that the secondary offender foresaw that the principal offender might possibly intend to kill the victim, or at least cause him or her serious harm. If they could prove this — beyond reasonable doubt of course — then the secondary offender would be guilty of murder, despite not delivering the fatal blow. This became an effective way of prosecuting members of gangs involved in gang violence, but it became increasingly clear that this lax legal test promoted a catch all approach to determining criminal liability, with some people very much on the periphery of the crime slammed with hefty prison sentences.

The law has now been put on a fairer footing: the secondary offender now has to either intend to cause serious harm or death to the victim or intend to assist or encourage the principal to do this himself.

Lawyers are very happy about this common law development, but — unsurprisingly — journalists aren’t.

Stirring up fear amongst its readership, the sensationalist press coverage of yesterday’s ruling announced that the Supreme Court had thrown a life line to notorious killers, who will now be able to appeal their convictions. The infamously anti-lawyer publication the Mail Online went with the headline “Killer of Becky Watts, thugs who kicked Garry Newlove to death on his doorstep and the duo who murdered Stephen Lawrence: All could appeal after Supreme Court ruling”, while the Daily Mirror went with this.

It’s long been known that journalists tend not to be au fait with complex legal news stories, but the newspapers treatment of yesterday’s pivotal criminal law ruling has really riled the legal Twitterati.

What yesterday’s ruling did was shake up the requisite mens rea needed to engaged the joint enterprise doctrine. What it didn’t do is totally overhaul the doctrine, as the tabloids seem to be suggesting. As anonymous criminal barrister The Secret Barrister was quick to point out, there’s not much to be said for the newspapers’ claims that the Supreme Court judgment will throw a lifeline to convicted killers.

Two specific killers that won’t benefit are those responsible for the death Stephen Lawrence — though they have been given intense media coverage from both national and local papers.

Even Jogee himself — the appellant in the Supreme Court case — was told by the court that the prospects of him walking free because of this ruling are “hopeless”.

The full force of the ruling will be felt in the next few weeks and months, but the press seem to be getting pretty ahead of themselves in their suggestion that Neuberger and co have unlocked the prison doors.