In Defence of the Doctrine of Common Purpose

Master Thesis


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The doctrine of common purpose has been subject to much criticism, especially concerning its use under apartheid. However, the doctrine predates the apartheid era and I argue that it should now be recognised as a tool to achieve justice. The constitutionality of the doctrine was confirmed in Thebus and Another v S 2003 (6) SA 505 (CC). Despite agreeing with the outcome, it is my view that the judgment would have been stronger had the Court acknowledged that, by dispensing with the requirement of causation, the doctrine must be subjected to a proportionality inquiry to determine whether there was ‘just cause' to deprive the appellants of their freedom. I argue that depriving persons who engage in joint criminal activity of their freedom is just as it is necessary to ensure crime control and safety in communities and there are no effective less restrictive means available to achieve this purpose. While misapplication of the doctrine is a legitimate concern, this does not make the doctrine itself unjust. It is incumbent upon courts to scrutinise the evidence against each accused and only convict them under the doctrine where a common purpose can be proved. The recent Constitutional Court judgment in Tshabalala v S; Ntuli v S 2020 (3) BCLR 307 (CC) expresses the importance of the doctrine in combating crimes (especially those of a sexual nature) committed by persons acting in concert. The doctrine ensures prosecution of collective criminal activity, and liability thereunder can be avoided where an accused effectively dissociates from a common purpose. It is submitted that the doctrine is a proportionate means to achieve justice and is in fact necessary in a country like South Africa, ravaged by high levels of collective criminal activity.