Arson is a very dangerous crime that is easy to commit and difficult to detect. In New South Wales, the common law offence of arson has been abolished. Several offences in the Crimes Act 1900 deal with the destruction of property by means of fire. These offences cover a wide array of criminal behaviour but are generally dealt with summarily.
What are the offences?
Under the Crimes Act 1900 there are four distinct offences that can comprise arson.
Destroy or damage property
Under Section 195 of the Crimes Act, a person commits an offence if they intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage property belonging to another. The maximum penalty for this offence where the damage is caused by fire, is imprisonment for ten years (or 11 years if the offender is in company with another person). If the destruction or damage is caused during a public disorder, such as a riot or other civil disturbance where public safety is as risk.
Intend to cause injury
Under Section 196 of the Crimes Act, a person commits an offence if they destroy or damage property with the intention of causing bodily injury to someone. This offence is punishable by a maximum penalty of 14 years if the damage is caused by fire (or 16 years if it is done during a public disorder).
Dishonestly destroy or damage property
Under Section 197 of the Crimes Act a person commits an offence if they dishonestly destroy or damage property by means of fire. This offence is punishable by a maximum of 14 years imprisonment (or 16 years if it done during a public disorder).
The offence provides for the situation where property is damaged dishonestly or for financial gain, such as an ‘insurance job.’
Intend to endanger life
Under Section 198 of the Crimes Act, a person commits an offence if they destroy or damage property with the intention of endangering the life of another. This offence carries a maximum of 25 years imprisonment.
Under Section 203E of the Crimes Act, it is an offence to set a fire and be reckless as to the spread of the fire to vegetation on public land or land belonging to another. The maximum penalty for this offence is imprisonment for 21 years. If a person actually dies as a result of the offender setting a fire, the offender may be charged with murder or manslaughter.
Courts take this offence very seriously as bushfires always cause significant property damage and often result in human deaths and deaths of wildlife.
How is the seriousness of an arson matter assessed?
Courts will consider a number of factors when assessing the objective seriousness of an instance of arson. These include:
- How much damage is caused;
- The potential risk of injury to people;
- The possible spread of the fire;
- What the offender knows about the financial impact of the fire (for example, that the property is uninsured);
- The offender’s motive;
- The amount of planning and premeditation;
Arson is a serious problem in Australia, which has received little attention in the past. In recent years, bushfire arson offences have been created in response to the prevalence and serious consequences of this type of offending. The maximum penalty for deliberately lighting a bushfire was recently increased from 14 years to 21 years.
Deliberately lit fires are difficult to identify, and the offenders are often never apprehended. Police crime statistics suggest that incidents of arson are increasing in New South Wales, however it is impossible to know whether the increase simply reflects an increase in the rate of detection.
There has been little research done into arson in the Australian context. The data available suggests that arson offenders are predominantly male and that many arsonists do not have previous criminal histories.
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