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Arson is a criminal offence which involves an accused intentionally setting fire to either public and / or private property. It should be noted that this is not the legal definition, which will be discussed below and throughout the article, but is a general description of such an offence. Arson can also include acts in which the accused charred a piece of property, meaning the degree of heat administered to an object will not absolve the offender of the crime itself but will only play a role in the sentence received (if charged and found guilty).
The person who commits the arson, whether through a fire or charring, is called an arsonist. The prevalence of arson in the state of Tasmania is quite prevalent, and as such, there is a comprehensive history of the kinds of fires that were lit. There is also a description of the consequences of such actions.
In February 1967 there was an event called the ‘Black Tuesday Bushfires’, where over 60 people lost their lives due to bushfires that were started in Southern Tasmania. Then in the beginning of 2009, Tasmania experienced one of its most devastating fires, where over four thousand hectares were burned. As a result of these fires, a symposium was held in March 2011 in Melbourne which brought many stakeholders in order to discuss the way to cease, regulate and punish the people who commit arson in the states of Australia, one of them being Tasmania.
If you are convicted of an Arson offence in Tasmania, the offence will show up as a disclosable court outcome (DCO) on a national criminal record check in Tasmania. 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 Tasmania’s Spent Convictions Scheme.
Arson offences are enumerated within the Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas), in the following sections; s.268, s.268A, s.269, and s.269A. Each of these are important in recognising, litigating and sentencing acts of arson, and will therefore be discussed in detail below.
Section 268 of the Act defines the criminal act of ‘arson’ as, ‘any person who unlawfully sets fire to any building, erection, or whatever structure, whether the same is completed or not, or to any stack or heap of cultivated produce, or of timber, or of mineral or vegetable fuel, or to any mine, or to any shop or vessel, whether contemplated or not, is guilty of a crime, which is called arson’.
As seen from the legislation, the range of property to which fire is started is quite broad. This is intentional. The main reason being due to the climate of Australia, and more specifically in Tasmania. Especially in the summer, it can get extremely hot and dry, therefore any minor sparks can cause a domino effect, resulting in vast regions of land catching fire.
Many people have built lives close to forests, meaning that forest fires can, and do, spread rapidly to any neighboring communities. Therefore, as seen in part A of this same section, there are numerous items which are strictly prohibited from being intentionally placed on fire. If a shrub, or a pile of hay for example, catches fire, then it can be destructive to both human populations and also to wildlife. As stated in the symposium, this in turn creates two issues; one being short term and the other being long term. The former involves the destruction which occurs to the citizens. The latter involves the destruction that occurs to the ecology of the burnt areas. This is one of the main reasons legislators have placed harsh penalties for those who are found guilty of the crime. The maximum sentence that can be received for this offence is 21 years.
Section 268A of the Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas) defines the unlawful setting of fire to crops, forests, moorland, peat, and other items. Specifically, subsection 1 states that ‘any person who unlawfully sets fire to any vegetation, whether live or dead, is guilty of a crime’. Also, subsection 2 states that ‘a reference to vegetation in subsection 1 includes a reference to; any cultivated vegetable produce (whether standing or cut), any crop of hay or grass, whether the natural or indigenous produce has been cultivated in a fertile soil or not, any forest, standing tree, sapling or shrub, any moorland, health scrub, whether indigenous or cultivated, and any peat, hummus, litter, stump or log. The maximum sentence that can be received for this offence is 21 years.
Section 269 defines the offence of unlawfully setting fire to property as the following: ‘any person who unlawfully sets fire to any property not compromised in 2.268 and s.268A is guilty of a crime’. As stated within the report, the principal reason for the specific working in this offence was to highlight the damage that had been done previously to private property within the state of Tasmania.
Specifically, there had been numerous reports of intentional fires between 2005-2010, all of which were linked to criminal activity. This criminal activity was actually discussed at the 2010 March symposium, and a majority of professionals decided to advise legislators to specifically include this as a separate enumerated offence. Another reason this was separately done was to give more discretion to a sentencing judge in regards to what punishment seems appropriate for someone who intentionally sets personal and private property on fire. However, overall, the same 21-year maximum sentence is also used in this offence as well.
Finally, section 269A of the Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas) expands on the offence above, by introducing the offence of causing a fire with the intent to injure a person or property. The offence states that ‘a person who puts flammable or combustible material, or does any other act, in any place for the purpose of causing a fire with the intent to injure any person or property is guilty of a crime’. As with the section above, this section was also deliberated about in the 2010 symposium. This offence essentially criminalises the act of intentionally trying to harm someone, or destroy someone’s property, by starting a fire. This specific criminal act was not discussed in detail within the symposium report; however, legislators have mentioned that harm done through arson can be extremely detrimental to a person’s health, and can even result in death.
It is important to note that people in Tasmania have been injured by someone else’s commission of arson, an example being the death of two sisters within their own home in 2017. Although in this specific example, the death was deemed unintentional, many officials and investigators of this situation have stated that it could have easily been avoided. The point being that there are different penalties, and will almost certainly be different sentences for people who start a fire unintentionally, as compared to those who do so intentionally.
That is why, although the maximum sentence for this specific offence is also 21 years, judges almost always tend to sentence those convicted closer to the higher side of the maximum penalty.
As of 2020, the Tasmanian government has responded to criticisms that their laws in regards to arson are the harshest in Australia. This is seen from the fact that many other states do not carry a 21-year maximum sentence for the offence. In regards to a relatively recent fire, that occurred in 2018, a police officer stated, ‘Deliberately lighting a bushfire is absolute idiocy and has potentially catastrophic consequences.’ As per the investigation of the police, four local campers had taken dislike to the then recent fire ban at the campsite and had therefore intentionally lit a bushfire. This in turn caused almost 3 million worth of damage, including the costs of clean up.
It is important to note that there are ways, other than legislation, enforcement, and punishment, to prevent rapid fires within the state of Tasmania. The first main way involves making sure that the environment is properly maintained and watched over. If an adequate amount of surveillance occurs, then small bushfires can be stopped before they speak large swathes of land, which in turn can result in the rapid escalation of fires. Legislators have admitted that the primary way this can occur involves an increased funding to forest ranger resources from the government.
Another way to prevent rapid fires involves educating the public. There are numerous stakeholders of society in Tasmania that can be educated on the dangers of forest fires (note that this also informs the parties how to prevent the fires from occurring in the first place). These stakeholders include, not are by no means limited to, high school students, professionals around forest areas, local community residents, business leaders, police, first responders and firefighters.
Arson in the state of Tasmania is a serious crime, and there is an ongoing effort to educate the public of the dangers of starting fires as well as the penal consequences that can occur if found guilty of one of the offences listed above.
It is important to note that the bushfire and forest fire lighting trend is an ongoing one, as seen from the statistics that between 2018-2019 there were about 449 arson related offences in the state of Tasmania. Even more startling was the fact that only 6 percent of these were related to bushfires, with the rest being attributed to either intentional or unintentional property fires.Therefore, it is important for citizens and tourists to understand the nature of the offences listed above.
If an individual is convicted in Tasmania 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 police check online via the Australian National Character Check - ANCC® website.
Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas) - https://www.legislation.tas.gov.au/view/html/inforce/current/act-1924-069
Sentencing Advisory Council Tasmania (Arson & Deliberately Lit Fires) - https://www.sentencingcouncil.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/227906/Arson_and_Deliberately_Lit_Fires_Final_Report_No_1.pdf
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