What is arson?

Arson is the destruction of property by fire. Arson has been replaced in the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) with several separate offences relating to the destruction of property. The main offence, destroying or damaging property by fire, is criminalised under section 195(1)(b) of the Crimes Act.  This offence occurs when a person:

  • Intentionally or recklessly destroys or damages property belonging to another, and
  • The destruction or damage is caused by means of fire or explosives.

 

Causing a bushfire

A person can also face arson charges for starting a bushfire when they:

  • Intentionally cause a fire, and
  • Are reckless as to the spread of the fire to vegetation on any public land or on land belonging to another.

Causing a bushfire is a crime under section 203E of the Crimes Act.

 

Arson penalties in NSW

The maximum penalty for the destruction of property by fire is 10 years imprisonment, and the court will frequently impose a prison sentence for this crime. The maximum sentences for other arson offences are listed in the table below.

OffenceMaximum prison sentence
Destroying or damaging property by fire10 years
Destroying or damaging property by fire in company11 years
Destroying or damaging property by fire during public disorder12 years
Destroying or damaging property with intent to injure a person14 years
Dishonestly destroying or damaging property by fire14 years
Destroying or damaging property, with the intention to endanger the life of another25 years
Causing a bushfire21 years

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Where will the charges be heard?

If the property damaged was worth less than $5,000, then it will be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution elects to have it heard in the District Court. The prosecution will usually make an election if they think the seriousness of the crime couldn’t be appropriately dealt with by Local Court sentences.

If the property damaged was worth more than $5,000, then it will be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution or accused elects to have it heard in the District Court. In this case, the accused may also make an election if they think they would benefit from having their matter heard before a jury.

Causing a bushfire will also be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution or accused elects to have it heard in the District Court.

Can arson be accidental?

Arson offences require that property be damaged intentionally or recklessly. If you tried to damage personal property, or you realised an action might cause damage to personal property and acted anyway, then you could be found guilty of an offence. A genuinely accidental fire cannot be prosecuted as arson.

Can I be charged with arson if I was only negligent?

Negligence is defined differently under the law than it is generally.  It is also a civil law concept and rarely used in criminal law. When used in criminal law, negligence refers to “such a high degree of disregard for the life and safety of others as to be regarded as a crime against the community generally, and as conduct deserving punishment”.

You can’t negligently start a fire and be charged with arson.  Arson offences require that property be damaged intentionally or recklessly. If you tried to damage personal property, or you realised an action might cause damage to personal property and acted anyway, then you could be found guilty of an offence.

But if you negligently start a fire and that fire causes somebody grievous bodily harm, then you could be charged with causing grievous bodily harm by a negligent act.

Do penalties differ for a first offence of arson?

If this is your first arson offence, you are less likely to receive a prison sentence or intensive corrections order. However, a range of factors will be considered during sentencing such as the extent of the damage caused by the fire, and whether you have a criminal history. These may have more influence on your sentence.

What are the difficulties with arson evidence?

In arson proceedings, much of the necessary evidence such as accelerants, DNA and fingerprints have been destroyed by the heat or fire. Prosecutors often face challenges of relying heavily upon circumstantial evidence which includes telephone records, telephone intercept material and scientific evidence.

What are possible defences to a bushfire charge?

You are not responsible for starting a bushfire if:

  • You are a firefighter or following the directions of a firefighter, and
  • The fire was started for the purpose of bushfire fighting or hazard reduction operations.

However, you could still be guilty under section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1997 for causing a fire without lawful authority.

Learn about other potential defences which might help you avoid a criminal conviction.

Where will the charges be heard?

If the property damaged was worth less than $5,000, then it will be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution elects to have it heard in the District Court. The prosecution will usually make an election if they think the seriousness of the crime couldn’t be appropriately dealt with by Local Court sentences.

If the property damaged was worth more than $5,000, then it will be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution or accused elects to have it heard in the District Court. In this case, the accused may also make an election if they think they would benefit from having their matter heard before a jury.

Causing a bushfire will also be dealt with in the Local Court unless the prosecution or accused elects to have it heard in the District Court.

Can arson be accidental?

Arson offences require that property be damaged intentionally or recklessly. If you tried to damage personal property, or you realised an action might cause damage to personal property and acted anyway, then you could be found guilty of an offence. A genuinely accidental fire cannot be prosecuted as arson.

Can I be charged with arson if I was only negligent?

Negligence is defined differently under the law than it is generally.  It is also a civil law concept and rarely used in criminal law. When used in criminal law, negligence refers to “such a high degree of disregard for the life and safety of others as to be regarded as a crime against the community generally, and as conduct deserving punishment”.

You can’t negligently start a fire and be charged with arson.  Arson offences require that property be damaged intentionally or recklessly. If you tried to damage personal property, or you realised an action might cause damage to personal property and acted anyway, then you could be found guilty of an offence.

But if you negligently start a fire and that fire causes somebody grievous bodily harm, then you could be charged with causing grievous bodily harm by a negligent act.

Do penalties differ for a first offence of arson?

If this is your first arson offence, you are less likely to receive a prison sentence or intensive corrections order. However, a range of factors will be considered during sentencing such as the extent of the damage caused by the fire, and whether you have a criminal history. These may have more influence on your sentence.

What are the difficulties with arson evidence?

In arson proceedings, much of the necessary evidence such as accelerants, DNA and fingerprints have been destroyed by the heat or fire. Prosecutors often face challenges of relying heavily upon circumstantial evidence which includes telephone records, telephone intercept material and scientific evidence.

What are possible defences to a bushfire charge?

You are not responsible for starting a bushfire if:

  • You are a firefighter or following the directions of a firefighter, and
  • The fire was started for the purpose of bushfire fighting or hazard reduction operations.

However, you could still be guilty under section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1997 for causing a fire without lawful authority.

Learn about other potential defences which might help you avoid a criminal conviction.

How can we help?

We have over 55 years of experience in successfully defending arson charges.

Book a free consultation or call us on 1300 668 484 for 24/7 legal advice.

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