1902 Encyclopedia > Conspiracy


CONSPIRACY, in English law, is an agreement between two or more persons to do certain wrongful acts, which may not, however, be punishable when committed by a single person, not acting in concert with others. The following are enumerated in text-books as the things, an agreement to do which, made between several persons, constitutes the offence of conspiracy :—(1) Falsely to charge another with a crime punishable by law, either from a malicious or vindictive motive or feeling towards the party, or for the purpose of extorting money from him; (2) wrongfully to injure or prejudice a third person or any body of men in any other manner; (3) to commit any offence punishable by law; (4) to do any act with intent to per-vert the course of justice; (5) to effect a legal purpose with a corrupt intent or by improper means; to which are added (6) conspiracies or combinations among work-men to raise wages.

The division is not a perfect one, but a few examples under each of the heads will indicate the nature of the offence in English law. First, a conspiracy to charge a man falsely with any felony or misdemeanor is criminal; but an agreement to prosecute a man who is guilty, or against whom there are reasonable grounds for suspicion, is not. Under the second head the text-books give a great variety of examples,—e.g. mock auctions, where sham bidders cause the goods to go off at prices grossly above their worth; a conspiracy to raise the price of goods by spreading false rumours; a conspiracy by persons to cause themselves to be reputed men of property, in order to deceive tradesmen; a conspiracy to cause by threats, contrivances, or other sinister means a pauper of one parish to marry a pauper of another in order to charge one of the parishes with the maintenance of both. These examples show how wide the law stretches its conception of criminal agreement. The third head requires no explanation. A conspiracy to murder is expressly made punishable by penal servitude and imprisonment (24 and 25 Vict. c. 100). A curious example of conspiracy under the fourth head is the case in which several persons were convicted of conspiracy to procure another to rob one of them, so that by convicting the robber they might obtain the reward given in such cases. The combination to effect a lawful purpose with corrupt intent or by improper means is exemplified by agreements to procure seduction, &c.

The most important question in the law of conspiracy, apart from the statute law affecting labourers, is how far things which may be lawfully done by individuals can become criminal when done by individuals acting in concert, and some light may be thrown on it by a short statement of the history of the law. In the early period of the law down to the 17th century, conspiracy was defined by the Ordinance of Conspirators of the 33 Edward I. :—"Con-spirators be they that do confedr or bind themselves by oath, covenant, or other alliance, that every of them shall aid the other falsely and maliciously to indite, or cause to indite, or falsely to move or maintain pleas, and also such as cause children within age to appeal men of felony, whereby they are imprisoned and sore grieved, and such as retain men in the country with liveries or fees to maintain their malicious enterprizes, and this extendeth as well to the takers as to the givers." The offence aimed at here is conspiracy to indict or to maintain suits falsely; and it was held that a conspiracy under the Act was not complete, unless some suit had been maintained or some person had been falsely indicted and acquitted. A doctrine, however, grew up that the agreement was in itself criminal, although the conspiracy was not actually completed (Poulterer's case, 1611). This developed into the rule that any agreement to commit a crime might be prosecuted as a conspiracy. A still further development of this doctrine is that a com-bination might be criminal, although the object apart from combination would not be criminal. The cases bearing on this question will be found arranged under the following heads, and in chronological order, in the Law of Criminal Conspiracies and Agreements, by B. S. Wright (London, 1873) :—Combinations against Government; combinations to defeat or pervert justice; combinations against public morals or decency; combination to defraud; combination to injure otherwise than by fraud; trade combinations. "It is conceived," says the author, " that on a review of all the decisions, there is a great preponderance of authority in favour of the proposition that, as a rule, an agreement or combination is not criminal unless it be for acts or omissions (whether as ends or means) which would be criminal apart from agreement." A dictum of Lord Denman's is often quoted as supplying a definition of conspiracy. It is, he says, either a combination to procure an unlawful object, or to procure a lawful object by unlawful means; but the exact meaning to be given to the word "lawful" in this antithesis has nowhere been precisely stated. A thing may be unlawful in the sense that the law will not aid it, although it may not expressly punish it. The extreme limit of the doctrine is reached in the suggestion that a combination to hiss an actor at a theatre is a punishable conspiracy.

The application of this wide conception of conspiracy to trade disputes caused great dissatisfaction among workmen. By the Master and Servant Act, 1867, breach of contract of service might be made the subject of complaint before a magistrate, who was empowered to impose a line when he thought it necessary. Trades unions were relieved from the stigma of illegality—which had hitherto attached to them by reason of their being combinations " in restraint of trade"—by the Trades Unions Act, 1871. In the same year the Criminal Law Amendment Act (34 and 35 Vict, c. 32) specified certain acts which, if done with a view to coercing either master or workman, were to be punishable with imprisonment. But in the meantime, the mere com-bination of workmen not to work with a particular person was held by the judges to amount to a conspiracy at common law (so held by Mr Baron Pollock at Leeds assizes in 1874). And the case of the London gas stokers, who were in 1872 convicted of a conspiracy to break their contract of service, directed attention to the question of punishing breach of contract as a crime. The following extract from Mr Justice Brett's charge to the jury will show the view taken by the judge : " If you think there was an agreement between the defendants to interfere with the masters by molesting them so as to control their will, and if you think that molestation was such as would be likely in the minds of men of ordinary nerve to deter them from carrying on their business according to their own will, then that is an illegal conspiracy." Again " was there a combination to hinder the company from carrying on and exercising their business by means of the men simultaneously breaking their contracts of service? Breach of contract is an illegal, nay more, it is a criminal act, and if they combined to interfere with their employers by breaking their contracts this would be using unlawful means." So in 1867, in the case of Druett, it had been laid down that if any set of men agreed among themselves to coerce the liberty of mind and thought of another by com-pulsion and restraint, they would be guilty of a criminal offence. These judicial opinions led to much agitation, which ended in the legislation of 1875. In that year was passed the Act for amending the law relating to conspiracy and to the protection of property, and for other purposes, 38 and 39 Vict. c. 86. This Act wras intended to regulate the criminal, as the Employers and Workmen Act of the same year (c. 90) was intended to regulate the civil questions arising out of the contract for service. The corresponding Acts of 1867 and 1871 are repealed. The 38 and 39 Vict. c. 8G enacts (§ 3) that " an agreement or combination by two or more persons to do, or procure to be done, any act in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute between employers and workmen shall not be indictable as a conspiracy, if such act committed by one person would not be punishable as a crime. When a person is convicted of any such agreement or combination to do an act which is punishable only on summary conviction, and is sentenced to imprisonment, the imprisonment shall not exceed three months, or such longer period, if any, as may have been prescribed by the statute for the punishment of the said act when committed by one person." The effect of the two Acts of 1875 is that breach of contract between master and workmen is to be dealt with as a civil and not as a criminal case, with two exceptions. A person employed on the supply of gas and water, breaking his contract with his employer, and knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that the consequence of his doing so, either alone or in combination with others, will be to deprive the inhabitants of the place wholly or to a great extent of their supply of gas or water, shall be liable on conviction to a penalty not exceeding £20, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months. And generally any person wilfully and maliciously breaking a contract of service or hiring, knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the probable consequences of his so doing either alone or in combination with others will be to endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury, or to expose valuable property whether real or personal to destruction or serious injury, shall be liable to the same penalty. By section 7 every person who, with a view to compel any other person to abstain from doing or to do any act which such other person has a legal right to do or abstain from doing, wrongfully and without legal authority, (1) uses violence to or intimi-dates such other person, or his wife and children, or injures his property; or (2) persistently follows such other person about from place to place ; or (3) hides any tools, clothes, or other property owned or used by such other person, or deprives him of or hinders him in the use thereof; or (4) watches or besets the house or other place where such other person resides, or works, or carries on business, or happens to be, or the approach to such house or place; or (5) follows such other person with two or more other persons, in a disorderly manner, in or through an}' street or road, shall be liable to the before-mentioned penalties. Of course a combination to do any of these acts would be punishable as a conspiracy, as mentioned in section 3 above.

Seamen are expressly exempted from the operation of this Act. The exceptions as to contracts of service for the supply of gas and water, &c, were supported by the circumstances of the London gas stokers' case above mentioned. Conspiracy at common law is a misdemeanour, and the punishment is fine or imprisonment, or both, to which may be added hard labour in the case of any conspiracy to cheat and defraud, or to extort money or goods, or falsely to accuse of any crime, and to obstruct, pervert, prevent, or defeat the cause of justice. Conspiracy to murder, whether the victim be a subject of the Queen or resident in her dominions or not, is by 24 and 25 Vict. c. 100 punishable by penal servitude. (E. E.)

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