Arson is considered a grave and dangerous crime, due to its potential to cause death and destruction, and quickly. The Australian Institute of Criminology defines it as “the act of intentionally and maliciously destroying or damaging property through the use of fire”. In New South Wales, arson is covered by the Crimes Act 1900 and the Rural Fires Act 1997.
Destroying or damaging property
Section 195 of the Crimes Act states that a person uses fire to intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage property is liable to imprisonment for 10 years. If the offence is committed in company, the maximum prison term is 11 years. If the arson is committed during a riot or violent protest, the maximum prison term is 12 years.
Fire with intent to cause injury
Section 196 of the Crimes Act states that a person who uses fire to destroy or damage property, with an intent to injure another person, is liable to imprisonment for 14 years. If the offence is committed during a riot or violent protest, the maximum prison term is 16 years.
Dishonestly destroying or damaging property
Section 197 of the Crimes Act states that a person who dishonestly destroys or damages property, with a view to making a gain from it, is liable to imprisonment for 14 years. If the arson is committed during a riot or violent protest, the maximum prison term is 16 years. This offence covers situations such as when a property is deliberately burnt down in order to make an insurance claim.
Fire with intent to endanger life
Section 198 of the Crimes Act states that a person who uses fire to destroy or damage property, with an intent to endanger the life of another person, is liable to imprisonment for 25 years.
Bushfires and arson
Section 203E of the Crimes Act covers the offence of causing a bushfire. It states that if a person intentionally causes a fire and is reckless about whether it spreads to vegetation on public or private land, they are liable to imprisonment for 21 years. A person will not be charged with this type of arson if the fire was started by a firefighter or under the direction of a firefighter to conduct “hazard reduction operations”.
An alternative arson charge is available under section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act. It states that a person commits an offence if they start a fire on public or private land and allow the fire to escape where it will cause or likely cause injury or damage to a person or property. The maximum penalty is a fine of 1000 penalty units ($110,000) or imprisonment for 5 years or both. If a total fire ban was in in place at the time of the arson, the ban must be taken onto account as an aggravating factor in sentencing. If a person commits the offence knowing a total fire ban is in place, the maximum penalty is a fine of 1200 penalty units ($132,000) or imprisonment for 7 years or both.
Section 100(2) states that a person who, without lawful authority, does not extinguish an open-air fire before leaving a site is liable to a fine of 50 penalty units ($5500) or imprisonment for 12 months, or both.
If a person dies as a result of arson, a person who started the fire could be charged with manslaughter.
Motives for arson
A common question from the public after an arson incident is why would someone deliberately light a fire to cause harm? Possible motives include profit, animosity, vandalism, crime concealment, political protest and psychopathological reasons.
A person may commit arson to gain a material benefit. This includes setting fire to a business premises to collect an insurance payment, or to remove a business competitor.
A person may commit arson as an outlet for anger, hatred or revenge.
Vandalism is the wanton and malicious destruction of property, with vandalism by arson usually linked to juvenile offenders, possibly due to factors such as peer group pressure or boredom.
Arson is often used to conceal or destroy evidence of another crime, such when a stolen vehicle is torched to destroy fingerprints and DNA evidence.
In this context, arson is used to signify extreme protest. Examples include the firebombing of abortion clinics, or someone setting fire to a family’s house to express racism.
Arsonists referred to psychiatric hospitals have been generally found to have mental handicaps, schizophrenia, personality disorders, substance abuse and mood disorders as the most frequent diagnoses.
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