Penalties For Arson in Australia

October 25, 2022

Arson is a serious problem in Australia; it’s a very dangerous crime that’s easy to commit but difficult to detect. It can immediately cause extensive damage and injure or kill people and animals. However, arson isn’t always easy to solve.


A study on the offending and reoffending patterns of arsonists and bushfire arsonists in New South Wales found out that most of the 1,232 arson defendants who appeared before NSW courts between 2001 and 2006 were male. Additionally, two-thirds of the defendants were found guilty, 42% of whom received a custodial sentence, with an average sentence of 11 months.


The National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson suggested that about 13% of the 60,000 bushfires that occur annually in Australia are started deliberately, with 37% having ‘suspicious’ origins. In response to the prevalence and serious consequences of such an offence, bushfire arson offences have been created recently. Arson is serious enough as a problem that it warrants its own charges and carries heavy penalties in many Australian jurisdictions. 


What Is Arson?

Arson is the act of intentionally and maliciously damaging or destroying property by using fire. It may target buildings (structural arson) or vegetation (including bushfire arson). The four core elements that are critical to the definition or meaning of arson are the following:

  • the lighting of a fire – fire is the main element of arson. If no fire is lit, there is no arson (but some legal definitions also include lighting explosives);
  • intention or wilfulness – fires started by natural causes or accidents are excluded. Fires can be lit for many reasons, including legitimate and legal purposes. If they are deliberately lit without the intention to cause damage or harm, and there’s no breach of the law, it’s not arson;
  • malice – fires that are started intentionally with positive or legitimate intent are also excluded; and
  • property – there must be some kind of property or object that is burned.


What Is the Punishment for Arson in Australia?

In New South Wales, the common law offence of ‘arson’ has been specifically abolished. In its place are statutory offences that involve starting a fire.


For example, within the Crimes Act 1900 are several distinct offences that deal with the destruction of property by means of fire. 


Section 203E of the Crimes Act 900 (NSW). This section makes it a crime to cause a bushfire. It states that a maximum penalty of 21 years of imprisonment applies to a person who ‘intentionally causes a fire’ and ‘is reckless as to the spread of the fire to vegetation on any public land or on land belonging to another.’ If someone dies as a result of the offender setting a fire, the person may be charged with manslaughter or murder. However, if the person is ‘a firefighter or acting under the direction of a firefighter’ and they ‘caused the fire in the course of bushfire fighting or hazard reduction operations,’ they are not guilty of the offence.


In addition, the section indicates that a person may alternatively be convicted of an offence under section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1997 if acquitted of the offence. It also prescribes a maximum penalty of 5 years of imprisonment and/or a fine of $11,000 for any person who, without lawful authority, ‘sets fire or causes fire to be set to the land or property of another person, the Crown or any public authority, or being the owner or occupier of any land, permits a fire to escape from that land under such circumstances as to cause or be likely to cause injury or damage to the person, land or property of another person or the land or property of the Crown or a public authority.’


Section 195 of the Crimes Act 900 (NSW). Under this section, a person makes an offence if he/she intentionally destroys or damages a property that belongs to another person. It provides for varying penalties, depending on the circumstances in which the property is damaged or destroyed. For this offence where the damage is caused by fire, the maximum penalty is 10 years of imprisonment. If the person commits this offence while in the company of others, the penalty becomes 11 years. 


Meanwhile, if this offence is committed during a ‘public disorder’ (such as a violent protest), the maximum penalty is 7 years of imprisonment. However, if a fire or an explosive is used to deliberately destroy or damage the property of another person during a ‘public disorder’ (such as a riot or violent protest), the maximum penalty increases to 12 years.


Section 196 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). This section sets out the offence of destroying or damaging a property with the intent to injure another person. The maximum penalty attached to this offence is 14 years of imprisonment if the damage is caused by fire and 16 years if it’s committed during a public disorder. 


Section 197 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). If a person maliciously destroys or damages property by means of fire, they commit an offence that is punishable by a maximum of 14 years of imprisonment. The punishment may increase to 16 years if the offence is done during a public disorder. Also, this offence includes a provision for circumstances wherein a property is damaged deliberately to commit insurance fraud.


Other related provisions are Section 199 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which deals with the threat to destroy or damage property, and Section 200 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which sets out the offence for the possession of explosives with the intent to destroy or damage a property.


The seriousness of an arson case is assessed based on a number of factors, including the following:

  • The offender’s motive,
  • The extent of damage,
  • The potential risk of injury to people,
  • The possible spread of the fire,
  • The amount of planning and premeditation, and
  • What the offender knows about the financial impact of the fire.


Mardini Defence Lawyers: Defending You

Mardini Defence Lawyers provides legal advice and representation to anyone in NSW. We believe that no case is too big or too small. We deal with a variety of criminal cases, including local court and supreme court bails, resisting arrest, assault, robbery, sex offences, firearm offences and more. 


If you are going to court for an arson offence and you need advice from an experienced criminal defence lawyer, call us anytime on 0412 719 705 to arrange a free initial consultation.

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