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  • Home Resources & Technical Articles Criminal Offence Topics (A to Z) Arson Offences Arson Offences in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

    Arson Offences in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

    Arson has the potential to be disastrous to a community. It can damage property and surroundings, inflict substantial financial damage, and put people's lives at risk. As a result, starting fires and letting them cause property damage is a serious crime. Depending on the kind of fire set and the harm produced by the fire, you can be charged with various offences.

    The maximum punishment for intentionally starting a fire to damage property or a bushfire in the ACT is 15 years in jail. If someone is caught setting a wildfire and there's a loss of life or property, the prosecution may bring charges of murder or manslaughter against them.

    If you are convicted of an Arson offence in the ACT, the offence will show up as a disclosable court outcome (DCO) on a national criminal record check in the ACT. The offence will remain on an individual’s criminal record check unless it is legally expunged after a certain period of time if it qualifies for ACT’s Spent Convictions Scheme.

    Understanding the crime of arson in the ACT

    While natural factors are a significant cause of fire in the ACT, some are started on purpose. Suspiciously started grass, car, and building fires are common in the ACT, particularly during the summer. Lighting a fire when there is a complete fire ban by the government is a grave offence as it may endanger people's lives.

    Generally, the main target of arsonists are assets such as:

    • Homes,
    • Commercial property,
    • Vehicles,
    • Buildings,
    • The natural landscape.

    The primary responders to fires in the ACT are the ACT Rural Fire Service and the ACT Fire and Rescue. However, if a fire is suspected of being unusual, it is the role of the AFP to investigate it.

    Punishment for arson in the ACT

    Under the Australian Capital Territory's Criminal Code 2002, it is an offence to use fire or an explosive to destroy or damage another person's building or vehicle. The maximum penalty for this offence is fifteen years in jail. However, the punishment can be harsher depending on the facts of the case.

    Pure Arson: Willful and unlawful arson

    These offences are based on the act of setting fire on a property. They are recognised in the Australian Capital Territory and other jurisdictions such as Tasmania, Queensland, and the Northern Territory. For these violations to be proven, the fire does not necessarily have to inflict any injury.

    These 'pure' arson charges are broader and more detailed than other sorts of arson offences. They are wider in coverage since they include actions regardless of the result. The only thing needed to prove them is the intention to start a fire.

    As a result, maximum penalties are often harsh and broad enough to cover the whole range of potential actions. The punishments, however, change depending on the offender's intent in connection to the subsequent injury caused by the fire.

    In practice, with 'pure' arson charges, the prosecution is not needed to demonstrate the outcome to establish the offence. Instead, the offender's motive when the fire was lit is all that is required, and it will influence the penalty imposed during sentencing.

    Motives of Arson Offences

    Bushfire arson can have different motivations than conventional 'structural' arson. The AIC (Australian Institute of Criminology) has identified the following typology to explain the various motivations for bushfire lighting:

    • To alleviate boredom or elicit excitement: Among the possible reasons are vandalism, excitement, and inspiring activities (for example, by firefighters).
    • Seeking attention and publicity: may be motivated by a desire to be viewed as a hero/heroine or boost one's self-esteem. It can as well be a cry for help and support.
    • For a particular aim or gain: wrath (to exact retribution or to express dissent), a pragmatic goal (for example, property management), money gain, or an altruistic objective.
    • No justification: fires started without malice, for instance, by a youngster (this would also include a small group of ACT residents who act on psychiatric impulses emanating from mental disability).
    • Mixed motivations: fires started for any of the reasons mentioned earlier or with evil intent but not intended or predicted to spread.

    Even for a single offender, the motivations for deliberately setting fires are likely to be different. For instance, the motivating factors could include vengeance or exhilaration.

    Arson-related crimes under the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT)

    The Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) has two different crimes that include actions of fire-related destruction. Also, there are additional property damage offences committed other than arson or explosives.


    • 1 – Deliberately destroying or causing damage to property by fire

    Section 117 of the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) establishes an offence for willful destruction and damage to a property using fire. The maximum sentence is twenty years in jail.

    However, it can only meet the required legal threshold if it is shown to have been committed with the aim of profiting for oneself or another person. For example, an "insurance claim" may be a frequent motivation for perpetrating this sort of arson offence.


    • 2 – Setting fire to the property to harm or threaten life

    The Crimes Act in the ACT describes some forms of arson as acts offenders do to endanger the life of another person. If convicted, the accused may face a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail.


    • 3 – Property destruction or damage

    Section 116 of the Crimes Act makes it a criminal offence for someone to purposefully destroy or damage another person's property (either by fire or explosion) to benefit oneself or another person. The maximum punishment for this sort of offence is 300 penalty units, 15 years in jail, or a combination of the two.


    • 4 – Property damage with the aim of threatening life

    Section 116 of the Crimes Act additionally introduces the crime of property destruction or damage if it is committed with the aim of the accused person threatening the life of another individual. Those convicted of this offence risk a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

    Possible rebuttals

    Whether an individual is charged with arson of a structure, arson of one's own property to obtain insurance money, or another form of arson, the fundamental strategy to defend arson remains the same. The law requires that the individual who ignited the fire did so "intentionally." As a result, an unintentional fire starting is typically not punishable as felony arson. However, a fire that spreads to a structure or house may be classified as an unintentional fire.

    Second, in most situations, a competent arson investigator will be required to supervise the forensic investigation conducted by the fire chief, fire marshal, or law enforcement investigators. An arson investigation is a highly specialised profession. One must exercise considerable caution in preserving and evaluating evidence of accelerants, spread patterns, source regions, and lightning as a probable cause. The defendant's argument may then arise that he or she lacked access to or opportunity to start the fire in the way stated.

    Additional defences may be available. This includes an examination of any constitutional violations, such as the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, the right to have any searches and seizures justified by probable cause and a valid warrant, and the right to due process in the preservation of evidence that one may use against you.

    Numerous other defences are available that rely on scrutinising and exposing a prosecutor's case weaknesses, such as biased or incompetent witnesses, flawed crime scene investigation, flawed administration and procedures for collecting breath, blood, or urine for forensic testing, incompetent computer evidence, flawed photo line ups, and inaccurate crime scene/accident reconstructions.

    The difficulties associated with arson punishments in the ACT

    Regrettably, arson is a significant problem throughout the country. Whether the intent is to cause injury or financial gain, setting an unrestrained fire has the potential to be fatal.

    Due to the lethal nature of fire-related crimes, individuals found guilty face stiff penalties to discourage others from setting fire to property. However, arson can be challenging to detect and establish. The nature of the crime is that, and some evidence may be lost in the fire.

    In the Australian context, further research is required, particularly given that arrested arsonists may not always have a criminal history. The crime is frequently associated with gang-related activity or, maybe, an "insurance job" (to get insurance compensation).

    What the police are required to prove

    To convict someone of an arson offence, the prosecution must establish four factors beyond a reasonable doubt. These include the following:

    • That the defendant made use of fire or an explosive;
    • They utilised it dishonestly, carelessly, or deliberately to ruin or damage a structure or vehicle;
    • That another individual largely or entirely owned the structure or vehicle, and
    • The accused did not get authorisation from the property's owner to demolish or damage the structure or vehicle.

    The act of setting a fire and permitting it to destroy another person's property is a criminal violation with serious consequences. A person may be indicted with many charges depending on the type of fire they set and the extent of the damage.

    Someone who intentionally starts a fire and damages someone else's property risks up to 15 years imprisonment in the ACT.

    If someone is discovered lighting a wildfire and property or lives are lost due to the occurrence, the police may also pursue charges of 'property damage' and murder or manslaughter.

    Will an Arson offence in the ACT show up on a national criminal record check?

    If an individual is convicted in the ACT for the offence of Arson, the offence will show up as a disclosable court outcome (DCO) on the results of their criminal background check.

    Individuals can obtain a criminal history check online via the Australian National Character Check - ANCC® website.

    Sources

    Criminal Code 2002 (ACT) - https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/a/2002-51/

    Crimes Act 1900 (ACT) - https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/a/1900-40

    Australian Institute of Criminology (Bushfire Arson: A Review of the Literature) - https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/rpp061.pdf

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