International law firm Dorsey & Whitney (Europe) LLP has won a landmark judgment for a Jamaican pro bono client in a case before the Supreme Court of The United Kingdom and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In an unprecedented joint decision, overturned 30 years of case law in the controversial area of joint enterprise liability for criminal acts. This widely reported judgment may have an impact on hundreds of convictions which now could be the subject of review.

The doctrine of joint enterprise, or “guilt by association”, has attracted criticism from academics, politicians and campaigners for legal reform. Since 1985, it had been sufficient to show that, where two people set out to commit an offence (for example robbery), and in the course of that joint enterprise, one of them commits another offence (for example murder), the other person is guilty as an accessory to the second offence if he had foreseen the possibility that his accomplice might act as he did, even though he did not intend the second offence to be committed.

This doctrine has been criticised as casting the net of criminal liability too widely, in particular in the context of gang fights where it has been said to allow the prosecution an easy route to establishing a murder conviction for all involved. The new ruling holds that “foresight is simply evidence (albeit sometimes strong evidence) of intent to assist or encourage, which is the proper neutral state for establishing secondary liability.”

Dorsey client, Shirley Ruddock, had been convicted in the Circuit Court of Montego Bay, Jamaica in 2010, of the murder of Peter Robinson. The prosecution's case was that the deceased was robbed of his car and then killed as a result of a joint criminal enterprise involving Mr. Ruddock and his co-accused, Mr. Hudson. The Jamaican judge, summing-up, explained that the jury could convict Mr. Ruddock of murder if they were sure that he participated in the robbery knowing that there was a possibility that Mr. Hudson might have the intention to commit murder and with that knowledge, nevertheless, went on to take part in the robbery.

Mr. Ruddock had been sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole until serving 25 years. His initial appeal had been rejected by the Jamaican Court of Appeal, following which he has now successfully appealed to the Privy Council in London, which remains the ultimate appellate court for a number of Commonwealth countries including Jamaica.

Successful appeals before the Privy Council are extremely rare. To overturn 30 years of case precedent is even rarer.

The Dorsey pro bono team who won the appeal was skilfully led by Special Counsel Matthew Blower and assisted by Associate Aidan Colclough, and Trainee Solicitors Deirdre Lyons Le Croy, and Peggy Morrison.