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  • Jessie Foreman

What is a conspiracy?

In popular culture, the term ‘conspiracy’ is shrouded in mystery, intrigue and illicit activities. Conspiracy in law is significantly different. This article will explain what ‘conspiracy’ means in a legal sense in England and Wales, explore its different elements, punishments and noteworthy cases.

Defining Conspiracy

In law, a conspiracy is an agreement where two or more people agree to carry their criminal scheme into effect, the very agreement is the criminal act’.[1] It is grouped with other criminal acts such as recklessness and incitement, known as inchoate offences.

Inchoate offences are instances where a ‘substantive offence may not have been completed but nevertheless an offence of a different kind has been committed because of the actions or agreements in preparation for the substantive offence’.[2] An example is a drugs conspiracy where the criminal agreement to supply drugs has been formed although no drugs actually change hands.

Elements of Conspiracy

To prove a conspiracy, the prosecution must be able to establish the following points:

  1. An agreement: There must be a clear and unequivocal agreement between two or more individuals to pursue an unlawful act. The agreement can be explicit or implied, but it must be more than mere discussions or vague intentions.

  2. Criminal intent: The conspirators must have the intention to carry out the illegal act. Mere speculation or idle chatter does not constitute criminal intent. There must be a genuine willingness to see the plan through.

  3. Overt act: While some jurisdictions require an overt act in to further the conspiracy, English law does not. The agreement itself is sufficient to constitute the offence.


If found guilty, punishments for conspiracy depend heavily on the crime the defendant intended to commit. Generally speaking the penalty for conspiracy will attract the same penalties as the substantive offence that was the object of the conspiracy.

In other words, if you conspire to commit burglary, you may receive the same punishment as if you did commit burglary. Although there are some instances where the sentence can be aggravated by virtue of the conspiracy. The sentence passed will be particular to the facts of a specific case.

Noteworthy Cases

  1. The Gunpowder Plot (1605): This is perhaps the most infamous of all conspiracies in English history, which involved a group of Catholics who planned to blow up King James I during the State Opening of Parliament. The conspirators were captured and executed.

  2. The Great Train Robbery (1963): A gang planned to steal £2.61M from a Royal Mail train between Glasgow and London. Many of the conspirators received lengthy prison sentences.

  3. London Nail-Bombings (1999): An example from recent memory, a neo-Nazi conspired to plant nail bombs across London and target mostly minority communities. Three people died as a result and the defendant was sentenced to live in prison.

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


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