The offence of arson is defined as willfully and unlawfully setting fire to property. In some states and territories, there is a specific provision dealing with arson (for example, in Queensland, Criminal Code Section 461). In others jurisdictions, such as Victoria, there is no specific provision relating to arson so the offence (where no death is involved) is prosecuted as unlawful destruction of property (Crimes Act, Section 197).
In Victoria, a specific offence exists for Arson Causing Death (Section 197A Crimes Act). This offence is punishable by a maximum of 25 years imprisonment. There is also a specific offence of Intentionally or recklessly Causing a Bush Fire (Crimes Act, Section 201A), which carries a maximum of 15 years imprisonment.
Why do people commit arson?
A lot of studies have been conducted to try to ascertain the motives behind acts of arson. These range from boredom and social alienation, to revenge, the desire to conceal a crime or for profit. Mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, and drug and alcohol abuse have also been linked to arson. Around half of the deliberately lit fires in Victoria are thought to be lit by young people. Victorian bush fires tend to start in areas where the outer suburbs meet the bush, which are also areas of high youth unemployment, which has been described as a ‘dangerous combination.’
Fires set as acts of vandalism are usually committed by juvenile offenders. The property set alight is typically an abandoned vehicle or building or a school.
Fires are sometimes set by thrill-seekers to create excitement and attention. These fires are generally set in a location known the offender. The offender often remains at the scene.
Fires can be set in retaliation for a real or perceived injustice. These fires may be targeted at an individual, an institution, community or group.
A fire may also be set in order to destroy evidence of an earlier crime, such as a murder or a burglary. It may be designed to destroy evidence of how the crime was carried out or the identity of the victim.
Fires may be also set in order to escape financial obligations. A vehicle or property may be torched in order to collect the insurance money or get out of repayments.
Offences relating to lighting fires
A range of offences involving the lighting of fires exists in Victoria. These range from minor offences punishable by fine only, to serious offences carrying a maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment. The below table sets out the various offences, their statutory authority and their maximum penalty.
|Offence||Legislative Provision||Maximum Penalty|
|Arson causing death||Section 197 Crimes Act (Vic)||25 years imprisonment|
|Intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire||Section 201A, Crimes Act (Vic)||15 years imprisonment|
|Destroying or damaging property||Section 197, Crimes Act (Vic)||10 years imprisonment|
|Lighting rubbish in a public place or leaving an open fire unattended||Section 11, Summary Offences Act (Vic)||12 months imprisonment|
|Lighting a fire during a total fire ban||Section 40, Country Fire Authority Act||240 penalty units or
2 years imprisonment
|Knowingly giving a false report to a fire brigade||Section 107B, Country Fire Authority Act||60 penalty units and possible compensation order|
|Set off fireworks in public without a permit||Section 4, Summary Offences Act (Vic)||5 penalty units|
Bush fires in Victoria
The best-known instance of arson in Victoria lies in the Black Saturday bush fires in 2009.
Victoria has a long history of devastating bush fires. Estimates of the number of Victorian bush fires which are deliberately lit vary from around 25% to around 40%. Other causes of bush fire include lightning strikes, campfires and agricultural accidents.
On 7 February 2009, around 400 fires were recorded in different locations around Victoria. 173 people died as a result of the fires and a further 414 were injured. Over 3,500 structures, including houses, commercial properties and community buildings were destroyed. A number of the Black Saturday fires were thought to be deliberately lit. However, some of the culprits could not be found and some prosecutions were commenced but not proceeded with.
Churchill local Brendon Sokaluk was found guilty of lighting one of the Black Saturday fires, which destroyed 150 houses and caused ten deaths in the Eastern Victorian town of of Churchill. Sokaluk, who has autism spectrum disorder, claimed to have accidentally started the fire by throwing a cigarette butt out of the car window. He denied intentionally or recklessly starting the fire.
Sokaluk was found guilty by a jury on ten counts of arson causing death and sentenced to 17 years and nine months imprisonment. The non-parole period was set at 14 years. The judge found that the fire was intentionally lit but that Sokaluk did not intend to kill anyone.
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