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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsCriminal liability refers to the idea that somebody has fulfilled all the requirements of a particular offence – that is to say, they have done all they needed to do for the offence to be complete. Now, when we think about liability in its most basic form, we are thinking about an individual, acting on their own, responsible for their conduct, and committing an offence. The basic position in criminal law is that you are responsible for your own conduct, and that your conduct attracts liability because you are responsible. Ordinarily, we don’t expect anybody else to bear responsibility for what a person does – each person makes their own decisions as an autonomous individual, and can be responsible for those decisions.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsThere are situations in which it might be appropriate to say that person A should be liable – in part – on the basis of what person B does. So, say Albert gives Brian a knife, knowing that Brian is going to stab Charles with it. If the stabbing then happens, it seems reasonable to say that Albert should bear some responsibility – and liability – in relation to the injuries suffered by Charles – even though he didn’t cause them directly himself, and even though Brian can make up his own mind about whether he is going to stab Charles. So, in those circumstances we might say that Albert is an accessory to Brian’s offence.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 secondsWe need to be careful that we don’t extend the criminal law too broadly – so say Albert thought Brian was going to cut vegetables with the knife rather than stab Charles, that seems to be an argument against finding Albert liable. Now, there have been some concerns that the criminal law has been overbroad in making people liable based on the conduct of others. Some of these concerns have arisen in cases where two people or a group of people agree that they will commit a particular offence, and while they are committing that offence, one of them does something possibly unexpected by committing another, different offence. So, imagine a situation in which Diane and Eva have agreed to commit a burglary.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsDuring the burglary, while they are in the house looking for property to steal, Eva trashes the living room and graffitis the walls. Now, what about Diane? She is clearly a burglar, but should she also be liable for the criminal damage caused by Eva? Or, imagine a situation in which one group of people are fighting with another, throwing punches and kicks. Say a member of the first group pulls out a cosh that nobody else knew they had, and inflicts very serious injuries on a member of the other group. Should the other members of the cosh-user’s group be liable for those very serious injuries? If we take that group-fight as an example, we can see the competing arguments.

Skip to 3 minutes and 1 secondOn the one hand, there is caution about overcriminalisation – criminalising me for the injuries which you caused with the cosh seems to have a flavour of guilt by association, and to go against the general principle of being responsible for one’s own actions, but not for the actions of others. On the other hand there is the argument that group fights are a social problem which need to be discouraged, that they always carry the risk of getting out of hand, and that if somebody is willing to get involved in a group fight, they should take the risk that somebody else might go further than expected.

Skip to 3 minutes and 37 secondsThe job of the law here is to try to navigate a sensible path between those competing priorities.

Liability for somebody else's crime

The basic structure of the criminal law envisages individuals bearing responsibility for their own conduct. If I act voluntarily, and in breach of the criminal law, I am responsible for my acts and I will be criminally liable for my conduct. But what of the person who encourages me, or who helps me? Consider the person who encourages me to steal from the shop, or the person who gives me the ladder to help with the burglary. How should the criminal law deal with those people?

In this video I discuss the issue of how the the law should respond to situations where more than one person is involved. Although I don’t use the actual phrase, I engage with so-called ‘joint enterprise’ situations, where parties agree to commit a particular offence, but one of them also goes on to commit further offence, which may or may not have been predicted by the others.

When you are watching the video, try to think about what the implications of these issues might be for Joe.

Think back to what you know about Joe’s story so far. How should the law deal with his role in the incident in town?

Discuss your thoughts with your colleagues.

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This video is from the free online course:

From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

University of York