Parties To Crime

Parties To Crime
Parties To Crime
Quick Summary of Parties To Crime

Parties to a crime refers to individuals who are involved in the commission of a criminal offence. In legal terms, there are several categories of parties to a crime:

Principal: The principal is the person who directly commits the criminal act or carries out the offence. They are typically the main perpetrator of the crime.

Accomplice: An accomplice is someone who aids, assists, encourages, or facilitates the commission of a crime, either before or during the act. Accomplices may be equally liable for the offence as principals, depending on their level of involvement.

Accessory: An accessory is someone who knowingly assists or harbors a principal or accomplice after the commission of a crime, with the intent to help them avoid arrest, prosecution, or punishment.

Conspiracy: Conspiracy involves an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, along with an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Even if the planned crime is not carried out, participants can still be charged with conspiracy.

Determining the culpability of parties to a crime often involves assessing their intent, knowledge, and level of participation in the criminal act. Each jurisdiction may have specific laws and legal principles governing liability for parties to a crime.

What is the dictionary definition of Parties To Crime?
Dictionary Definition of Parties To Crime

There are various ways in which persons can be jointly liable for, or in respect of, committing a criminal offence.

More than one method of collaboration can apply to the same offence.

  • A person may be an accomplice to a principal offender; that is, he may ‘aid, abet, counsel, or procure’ the offence while not being the direct cause of the Actus Reus.
  • Parties can enter into conspiracy to commit an offence.
  • Parties can enter into a joint enterprise to commit an offence, although it is not clear whether this is distinct from the parties’ being accomplices to each other.
  • A person may give assistance after the offence.
  • A person may provide incitement to another to commit a crime (this is different from the ‘counselling’ required of an accomplice).
  • A person may be dissuaded from prosecution by an offer of reward (see: compounding and misprision).
Full Definition Of Parties To Crime

In the context of British law, the term “parties to crime” encompasses a range of roles that individuals might play in the commission of a criminal offence. This legal concept is fundamental to understanding how criminal liability is assigned and prosecuted. The primary categories of parties to crime include principals, accomplices, and accessories. Each category entails different levels of involvement and corresponding legal consequences.


Principals in the First Degree

A principal in the first degree is the person who actually commits the crime. This individual carries out the physical act that constitutes the criminal offence, whether through direct action or by an omission where there is a duty to act. The principal in the first degree is the main perpetrator and is held fully accountable for the offence.

Principals in the Second Degree

A principal in the second degree is someone who aids, abets, counsels, or procures the commission of the crime by the principal in the first degree. This can include actions such as providing tools, information, or encouragement that facilitate the crime. To be considered a principal in the second degree, the individual must be present at the scene of the crime, either physically or constructively (having an immediate ability to assist).


Accomplices are individuals who assist the principal before or during the commission of the crime. Their involvement must be intentional, and they share the same liability as the principal. British law differentiates between various forms of assistance provided by accomplices:


Aiding involves providing physical or psychological support to the principal. This can include actions like helping to plan the crime, providing tools or transportation, or offering moral support. The aid must have a significant impact on the commission of the crime, and mere presence at the scene does not constitute aiding unless it serves to encourage the principal.


Abetting refers to encouraging or inciting the principal to commit the crime. This can be done through words, actions, or even gestures that reinforce the principal’s intent to commit the offence. The encouragement must occur before or during the commission of the crime.


Counselling involves advising, recommending, or persuading the principal to commit the crime. The counselling must be a significant factor in the principal’s decision to commit the offence. It does not require the counsellor to be present at the scene of the crime.


Procuring entails causing or instigating another person to commit the crime. This can involve arranging the circumstances or providing the means necessary for the crime to occur. The procurer must intend for the crime to be committed and play a direct role in its facilitation.


Accessories are individuals who assist the principal after the commission of the crime, helping them avoid detection, arrest, or prosecution. Unlike accomplices, accessories do not participate in the commission of the crime itself. British law recognises two main types of accessories:

Accessories Before the Fact

An accessory before the fact is someone who assists in preparing for the crime but is not present during its commission. This can include actions like providing information, tools, or a safe location for planning. Accessories before the fact are treated as principals and face similar penalties.

Accessories After the Fact

An accessory after the fact is someone who assists the principal after the crime has been committed. This can involve helping the principal escape, destroying evidence, or providing false alibis. Accessories after the fact face lesser penalties than principals and accomplices, but their actions can still lead to significant legal consequences.

Joint Enterprise

Joint enterprise is a legal doctrine that holds all participants in a common criminal endeavour equally liable for offences committed in furtherance of that endeavour. Under joint enterprise, individuals can be convicted of a crime even if they did not directly participate in its commission, as long as they shared a common purpose with the principal.

Common Purposes

For a joint enterprise to exist, there must be evidence that the participants shared a common purpose to commit the crime. This can be established through explicit agreements or inferred from the circumstances. The common purpose must encompass the specific offence committed, or at least the type of offence.


Foreseeability is a key element in joint enterprise liability. Participants can be held liable for crimes that were foreseeable consequences of the common purpose, even if they did not intend for those crimes to occur. This principle aims to hold individuals accountable for the broader impact of their criminal activities.

Defences to Liability as a Party to Crime

British law provides several defences that can mitigate or eliminate liability as a party to crime. These defences acknowledge that not all individuals who appear to be involved in a crime are equally culpable.


Withdrawal from participation in a crime can be a valid defence if it occurs before the offence is committed. The individual must take clear and unequivocal steps to disengage from the criminal activity and, where possible, prevent the crime from occurring. Simply changing one’s mind without taking action is insufficient.

Lack of Intent

A lack of intent can absolve an individual from liability as a party to crime. This defence applies when the person did not have the requisite mental state to commit the crime or assist in its commission. For example, someone who unknowingly provides assistance to a criminal without understanding their intent cannot be held liable as an accomplice.

Coercion or Duress

Coercion or duress involves being forced to participate in a crime under threat of harm or death. This defence can absolve an individual from liability if they can prove that their involvement was involuntary and that they had no reasonable means of escape.

Legal Reforms and Criticisms

The legal framework surrounding parties to crime has evolved over time, reflecting changes in societal attitudes and legal principles. However, it remains a subject of debate and criticism.

Complexity and Ambiguity

One of the main criticisms of the current legal framework is its complexity and ambiguity. The distinctions between different types of parties to crime can be subtle and difficult to apply in practice. This can lead to inconsistent outcomes and challenges in prosecution and defence.


Another criticism is the potential for overcriminalization, particularly under the joint enterprise doctrine. Critics argue that individuals can be unfairly punished for crimes they did not directly commit or intend, based solely on their association with others. This has led to calls for reform to ensure that liability is more closely aligned with individual culpability.

Judicial Interpretations

Judicial interpretations of the law have also played a significant role in shaping the application of parties to crime. Landmark cases and appellate decisions continue to influence how courts interpret and apply legal principles, contributing to ongoing legal development.


The concept of parties to crime in British law is multifaceted, encompassing a range of roles and levels of involvement. Understanding the distinctions between principals, accomplices, and accessories is crucial for accurately assigning criminal liability. While the legal framework provides mechanisms for addressing various forms of participation in crime, it also faces criticisms and calls for reform. As society and legal principles continue to evolve, so too will the laws governing parties to crime, striving to balance fairness, accountability, and justice.


  1. Smith, J. C., & Hogan, B. (2021). Criminal Law.
  2. Ormerod, D. (2018). Smith and Hogan’s Essentials of Criminal Law.
  3. Card, R. (2017). Card, Cross & Jones: Criminal Law.
  4. Simester, A. P., & Sullivan, G. R. (2019). Criminal Law: Theory and Doctrine.
  5. Williams, G. (2003). Textbook of Criminal Law.


Appendix A: Case Law Examples

  • R v Jogee [2016] UKSC 8: A landmark case that redefined the principles of joint enterprise, emphasising the need for intent in establishing liability.
  • R v Clarkson [1971] 1 WLR 1402: A case illustrating the requirements for aiding and abetting, specifically the need for active encouragement or assistance.
  • R v Bainbridge [1960] 1 QB 129: A case demonstrating the liability of accessories before the fact, focusing on the provision of materials used in the commission of a crime.

Appendix B: Legislative Framework

  • Accessories and Abettors Act 1861: The foundational statute outlining the liability of accomplices and accessories in British law.
  • Criminal Law Act 1977: Legislation addressing various aspects of criminal liability, including the roles of parties to crime.
  • Serious Crime Act 2007: Modern statute providing detailed provisions on encouraging and assisting crime, updating previous common law principles.
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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 6th June 2024.

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