Extended common purpose – correcting the common law on secondary liability

Well, interweb, if I’m going to do a post this year I had better get on with it.

Extended secondary liability has received attention on this site before, on Dec 22, 2011, and Dec 18, 2006.

The Privy Council, in a judgment delivered jointly with the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, has corrected a long-standing (30 years) error in the law of this form of liability: R v Jogee [2016] UKSC 8 (18 February 2016).

The change, reverting to what had been the correct position, is that a secondary party must always intend that the offence be committed. The error had happened when the Privy Council gave judgment in Chan Wing-Siu [1985] AC 168. The Board had held that under the extended form of secondary liability intention is not required, but instead only foresight that commission of the offence is a probable consequence of the prosecution of an unlawful common purpose.

This is explained extremely clearly by Francis FitzGibbon in the London Review of Books, Vol 38, No 5, 3 March 2016.

Embarrassingly, the blame for all this is attributed to the then Sir Robin Cooke (later, Lord Cooke), who delivered the Board’s judgment in Chan Wing-Siu. If one is to place the blame in that way, one must assume that the other members of that Board were asleep: Lord Keith of Kinkel, Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Brandon of Oakbrook, and Lord Templeman. None of them tugged at Sir Robin’s sleeve and said “hang on a minute mate” (or whatever the equivalent English expression was).

From where did Sir Robin get his misunderstanding of the common law? As a New Zealand judge he would have been familiar with our s 66(2) of the Crimes Act 1961, which is the provision for this form of liability. An early interpretation of the (not materially different) predecessor of this – s 90(2) of the Crimes Act 1908 – was that the secondary party had to intend the commission of the foreseen offence: R v Malcolm [1951] NZLR 470, 485 line 33 (CA) where there is only a brief comment “Subsection 2 of s 90 requires a common purpose” [emphasis added]. However that was criticised in an influential textbook, Criminal Law and Practice in New Zealand (2nd ed FB Adams, 1971) at para 664, where it was said that “the whole point of s 66(2) [is] that something is done which may have gone beyond the common primary purpose.”

So, contrary to Malcolm, s 66(2) has subsequently (at least) been understood to mean that the secondary participant need not intend the commission of the offence, but that only foresight of it as a probable consequence of pursuit of the common purpose is required.

Regardless of why the mistake may have been made and why it had gone unnoticed for decades, the common law is now that intention is required. Foresight of a risk is evidence of intention, not a substitute for it. Can a provision like s 66(2) be interpreted consistently with that? I think it can. A “common intention to prosecute any unlawful purpose, and to assist each other therein” refers to a range of intended offences. Otherwise, the subsection would have said “common intention to commit an offence”. The phrase “known to be a probable consequence of the prosecution of the common purpose” functions to keep liability within the bounds of what was intended.

[Update: The Supreme Court has declined to reinterpret s 66(2) to bring it into line with Jogee: Uhrle v R [2016] NZSC 64 (13 June 2016).]

[Another update: The High Court of Australia has refused to revise the common law insofar as it applies in Australian jurisdictions, and will not bring it into line with Jogee: Miller v The Queen [2016] HCA 30 (24 August 2016).]

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