“All for One and One for All”
Criminal Conspiracy in the UK

“An agreement between two or more persons to break the law at some point in the future, and, in some cases, with at least one overt act in furtherance of that agreement. There is no limit on the number participating in the conspiracy and, in most countries, no requirement that any steps have been taken to put the plan into effect. Conspiracy can be charged even when co-conspirators have been acquitted or cannot be traced”

History of the law

Conspiracy first became a statutory offence in 1977 with the introduction of the Criminal Law Act. Before this, it was recognised under common law and had been able to grow, accomodating new situations. The 1977 Act abolished most common law varieties of conspiracy.

According to Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977…

“…if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either –
(a) will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or
(b) would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, [added by S.5 Criminal Attempts Act 1981]
he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.”

Basically, to be guilty of an offence of conspiracy, you must have agreed with another person (or people) that another offence would be committed (for example, murder, burglary, arson and so on). It does not matter whether or not the crime was carried out or whether you did not do it yourself – it is the agreement to commit the crime that means you are guilty of conspiracy.

History of the use of “conspiracy”

Over the years, political activists have seen a number of cases go ahead with the defendants being charged with “conspiracy to commit” an offence. As far back as 1973, the actor and comedian Ricky Tomlinson was sentenced to two years imprisonment for “conspiracy to intimidate” as part of the “Shrewsbury 2”.

Closer to home and in 1997, four editors of the “Green Anarchist”, UK ALF press officer Robin Webb and ALF SG editor Simon Russell were put on trial in Portsmouth for “conspiracy to incite criminal damage” following “Operation Washington” in which police organised more than 56 raids on suspects starting in 1995. The “GANDALF” (Green ANarchist and ALF) defence campaign was set up during this time.

Then, in 2005, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) came into play, creating two new offences under section 145 and section 146. These were specifically targetted at animal rights activists – section 145, for example, creates the offence of “interfering with the contractual relationships of an animal research organisation”.

Almost immediately, in May 2006, 13 activists who had campaigned against Sequani animal testing laboratory were raided by the police. Of these, seven were charged and six went to trial in 2008 after a seventh accepted a plea bargain. One of the defendants, Sean Kirtley, was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in prison by a judge who listed “game shooting” as one of his hobbies. Having spent 16 months in prison, his appeal succeeded and he was released.

During the time these activists were on bail, the police launched “Operation Achilles” and raided more than 30 addresses in May 2007. This was to do with the SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences. In January 2009 seven of the defendants were sentenced having pleaded guilty or been found guilty at trial.

For more information, see: State Crackdown on Anti-Corporate Dissent (Corporate Watch pdf)

In 2009 SPEAK activist Mel Broughton was found guilty of “conspiracy to commit arson” with “persons unknown” and sentenced to 10 years in prison. A year later and this conviction was overturned, unfortunately to be replaced by a conviction for “arson” alone.

2010 saw the conviction of 20 people in relation to climate change protests. They had been charged with “conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass” following raids in 2009 and the arrest of 114 people. In this case there was some evidence of an agreement to take part in actions and the defendants used a “necessity” defence in court. Their convictions were later overturned however and “the Ratcliffe case” became more well-known due to the undercover cop Mark Kennedy being exposed.

One of the biggest anti-fascist cases in recent years went to trial in 2011 with 20 people being taken to court. This followed an incident in 2009 where there was an altercation between anti-fascists and fascists on a train platform in London. 22 people (all anti-fascists) were charged with “conspiracy to commit violent disorder”. In 2011, seven of these people were found guilty in the first part of the trial; another four were acquitted. The nine people involved in the second part of trial three months later were all acquitted (two others had their cases dropped the day before the second trial began).

Over these years, we have seen other examples of “conspiracy” being added to offences, in various political cases.

But what does this mean?

As explained above, no crime need actually be committed for an offence of “conspiracy” to apply. Merely planning to do something illegal with others constitutes conspiracy. This agreement does not need careful planning and months of talks in advance – it can happen minutes before action is taken. Additionally worrying is the fact that a large group of people can be drawn into a case in which only a handful of people committed (or are accused of committing) an offence, as with the antifascist trial, where a lot of people were arrested for the actions of one or two.

Regardless of whether or not people are found guilty, bringing a lot of people into the same trial makes the case look a lot more serious than it may actually be. Additionally, it means that everyone ends up going through the physical and mental struggles associated with being arrested, charged, bailed and so on. It puts a strain on people individually as well as on campaigns and helps to create a climate of fear surrounding being associated with other activists and certain high-profile campaigns. The SHAC blackmail case back in 2007 – 2009 for example generated a huge amount of media attention before and during the trial and many of the actions pointed to as evidence in the case were not actually linked to any of the defendents on trial. As stated in a Corporate Watch article “even if some people linked to SHAC did decide to take direct action, this does not make everyone associated with campaign guilty by association”.

Unfortunately, we still need to do a lot of fighting before we can defeat such laws and abuses of the legal system such as these.