Arson is considered a very serious and very dangerous crime, due to its potential to cause death and destruction, and quickly. It is also a technically difficult crime to detect and solve. The Australian Institute of Criminology defines arson as “the act of intentionally and maliciously destroying or damaging property through the use of fire”. In Western Australia, arson is covered by the Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913, with other fire-related offences found in the Bush Fires Act 1954.
Under the Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913, a person commits an offence if they wilfully destroy or damage property. If the destruction or damage is caused by fire, the person faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The Act contains special duties for a person who is in charge of a source of ignition or of a fire. A person in charge of a source of ignition must take reasonable care and reasonable precautions to avoid lighting a fire that could destroy or damage property. If the person is in charge of a fire, they must take reasonable care and reasonable precautions to contain the fire so it does not destroy or damage property the person is not entitled to damage or destroy. Such property includes vegetation. A breach of these special duties carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 15 years.
The Bush Fires Act 1954 contains offences “of lighting or attempting to light fire likely to injure”. An offence is committed when a person wilfully lights, tries to light, or causes to be lit, a fire that is likely to injure or damage a person or property. An offence is also committed when a person “places a match or other inflammable or combustible substance”, matter or thing in a position so that it may directly or indirectly be ignited by the rays of the sun or by friction or other means, or be exploded or set on fire, or whereby a fire may be lit or caused and with the intent to cause a fire”, and this is likely to injure or damage a person or property. The maximum penalty for these offences is imprisonment for 20 years.
The Act allows the Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner to declare times of the year when a permit is required to light a fire in a zone or part of a zone of Western Australia. It also allows the Western Australian Government to declare a total fire ban at times such as when weather is or will be conducive to the outbreak or spread of bush fires.
Arson, or any suspicious activity related to fires, can be reported to police or Crime Stoppers. A witness to arson may be eligible for a reward of up to $25,000 if the witness supplies information to police that leads to a person being convicted of arson. The Government Arson Reward Scheme and the Insurance Council of Australia Arson Reward Scheme each offers a maximum reward of $25,000. A witness can receive a reward from one scheme or the other but not both for the same incident.
Sentencing for arson
Sentencing for arson offences is carried out in the Supreme Court. When sentencing an offender, the court will consider factors including:
- the extent and cost of the damage or destruction;
- the risk caused by the arson;
- the method used;
- the degree of planning;
- the purpose of the arson;
- the type of property damaged or destroyed;
- the impact on public resources.
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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