Abetment, Criminal Conspiracy, And Joint Liability ExplainedAug 10, 2023
Abetment, Criminal Conspiracy, and Joint Liability
Crimes are often not committed by a single individual. So, how does the law, along with criminal lawyers, deal with individuals in criminal trials who are committing an offence together? What if a person merely assisted another individual in the commission of an offence? This short article seeks to provide an answer to the forecited questions by shedding some light on the concepts of Abetment, Criminal Conspiracy, and Joint Liability.
What is Abetment?
The man on the street would understand abetment to simply mean “assist”. However, the legal concept of abetment goes further than that. The legal definition of abetment is set out in Section 107 of the Penal Code, the relevant portions of which read as follows:
“A person abets the doing of a thing who —
- instigates any person to do that thing;
- engages with one or more other person or persons in any conspiracy for the doing of that thing, if an act or illegal omission takes place in pursuance of that conspiracy, and in order to the doing of that thing; or
- intentionally aids, by any act or illegal omission, the doing of that thing.”
In summary, there are three ways in which a person can abet another:
- A person (A) can instigate another person (B) to commit an offence.
This means that A will usually have either actively suggested or supported or stimulated for the commission of the offence by B. In fact, in exceptional circumstances, silence or indifference may constitute as abetment by instigation.
A must have intended for B to carry out the conduct abetted and must have known about the circumstances constituting the crime.
- A person (A) can engage with B in a conspiracy for the doing of a crime. An act (or illegal omission) must have also taken place in pursuance of the conspiracy in order for the crime to be committed. This type of abetment is commonly known as abetment by conspiracy. The basic element of abetment by conspiracy is an agreement on the part of all parties as to the general purpose of the unlawful plot.
- A person (A) can aid another person (B) in B’s commission of an offence. ‘Aid’ means to facilitate the commission of the act (see Explanation 2 to Section 107 of the Penal Code). Crucially, the aid must be rendered prior to or at the time of the commission of the act.
A must have intended that B carry out the conduct abetted and must have known about the circumstances constituting the crime.
The punishment for abetment is dependent on whether the abetment led to the successful completion of the abetted offence. If the offence was committed successfully, the abettor will be punished with a punishment provided for the substantive offence itself (Section 109 of the Penal Code).
However, if the abetment did not lead to the successful completion of the abetted offence, the punishment will vary based on the severity of the abetted offence as provided for in Sections 115 and 116 of the Penal Code.
What is Criminal Conspiracy?
Criminal Conspiracy is defined in Section 120A of the Penal Code, which reads as follows:
- When a person agrees with another person to commit an offence or cause an offence to be committed, such an agreement is designated a criminal conspiracy.
- A person may be a party to a criminal conspiracy despite the existence of facts of which he is unaware which make the commission of the offence impossible.
- A person may be a party to a criminal conspiracy even though any other person who agrees to commit the offence that is the subject of the conspiracy or to cause that offence to be committed does not intend to carry out that agreement.
- A person may be a party to a criminal conspiracy in Singapore to commit an offence outside Singapore, which would constitute an offence if committed in Singapore.
- A person may be a party to a criminal conspiracy to commit an offence in Singapore even though all or any of the acts constituting the criminal conspiracy were done outside Singapore.
The basic element of criminal conspiracy is agreement. There must be a meeting of minds between the parties. In other words, all parties must have agreed on the general purpose of the unlawful plot. Further, in order for a person to be involved in a criminal conspiracy, he must have: (a) intended to be a party to the agreement; (b) intended to carry out the agreement; and (c) knowledge of the circumstances of the offence. It naturally follows, then, that a person will not be liable of criminal conspiracy if he merely purports or pretends to agree to the commission of the offence.
Notably, criminal conspiracy is wider than abetment by conspiracy. The former merely requires there to be an “agreement”. The latter, however, requires an act (or illegal omission) to have taken place in pursuance of the conspiracy.
The punishment for criminal conspiracy is found in Section 120B of the Penal Code, which essentially provides for criminal conspiracy to be punished in like manner to abetment.
What is Joint Liability?
Joint liability is a weapon in the law’s arsenal that is targeted at crimes which are committed by a group of individuals. Joint liability is a slightly different concept from abetment and conspiracy; it essentially treats an individual as if the said individual had committed the crime itself.
Section 34 of the Penal Code is commonly used by the Prosecution to impose joint liability on persons who participate in the commission of an offence, and it reads as follows:
“When a criminal act is done by several persons, in furtherance of the common intention of all, each of such persons is liable for that act in the same manner as if the act were done by him alone.”
The following example illustrates the concept of joint liability:
D1 and D2 agrees to rob V. D1 holds a knife to V’s throat and takes the money from V while D2 keeps watch at the doorway. D1 is the principal offender and D2 is the secondary party.
Although D2 had not committed any of the physical elements of robbery, joint liability would mean that D2 is treated as if he had committed robbery. Of course, this would also mean that D1 must have committed the offence of robbery in order for D2 to be held jointly liable with D1.
What is a “common intention”? This can be simply explained with the example of an offence of murder. Suppose a person (A) and another person (B) murders a victim (C) by inflicting multiple blows on C. It is not known which blow ultimately killed C. However, as long as A and B shared the common intention to cause the death of C by the infliction of those injuries which ultimately led to his death, they will both be liable for murdering C.
The application of common intention is slightly more complex in ‘twin-crime’ scenarios. ‘Twin-crime’ scenarios are where, in the course of committing a particular offence, another and usually more serious offence is committed.
Take for instance the scenario where D1 and D2 set out to rob V. D2 knows that D1 is nursing a grudge against V as V had previously slept with D1’s girlfriend. During the robbery, D2 holds a knife to the throat of V and takes V’s money while D1 keeps watch. Once D2 gets the money, he retreats and heads for the door. Suddenly, D1 approaches V and slits V’s throat with a knife. V dies.
Will D2 be jointly liable for murder with D1? The likely answer is no. In order for D2 to be jointly liable for murder with D1, D2 must have had the intention to commit murder (within the meaning of Section 300(a) of the Penal Code). Although D2 might have been aware that D1 may likely murder V (because D1 was nursing a grudge against V), this is not enough to impose joint liability on D2.
 Note also – Section 107(2) of the Penal Code: “A person may abet the doing of a thing despite the existence of facts of which he is unaware which make the doing of the thing impossible.”
 Yeo, Morgan, and Chan “Criminal Law in Singapore”