Courts to take account of total impact of crime in new arson guidelines

New sentencing guidelines that will see the courts take full account of the harm caused by offences such as arson attacks on historic buildings or criminal damage leading to severe disruption of public services were published today by the Sentencing Council. 

For the first time, all courts in England and Wales will have formal guidance to ensure that they take account of:

  • The full impact of arson or criminal damage such as vandalism on national heritage assets including listed buildings, historic objects or unique parts of national heritage and history.
  • The economic or social impact of damaging public amenities and services such as a fire at a school or community centre, or criminal damage at a train station, which can adversely affect local communities or cause economic hardship to neighbouring houses or businesses.
  • The effect on communities when an area’s emergency services or resources are diverted to deal with an incident of criminal activity.

The guidelines acknowledge that harm can involve not only physical injury but long-term psychological effects, and that damage to property can be about more than just its financial value.

Judges and magistrates will also consider requesting reports to ascertain both whether the offence is linked to a mental disorder or learning disability in order to assess culpability, and whether any mental health disposal should be considered.

The guidelines, which come into effect on 1 October 2019, will help to ensure that sentencing by judges and magistrates will be consistent across the whole range of these offences. Limited guidance exists in magistrates’ courts, but the new guidelines apply to all courts.

The new guidelines cover the following offences:

  • Arson – criminal damage by fire
  • Criminal damage / arson with intent to endanger life or being reckless as to whether life endangered
  • Criminal damage where the damage has a value exceeding £5000
  • Criminal damage where the damage has a value not exceeding £5000
  • Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage
  • Threats to destroy or damage property

Sentencing Council member Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro QC said:

“The Council’s guidelines ensure that courts can consider all the consequences of arson and criminal damage offences, from a treasured family photo being destroyed to someone nearly losing their life and home in a calculated and vengeful arson attack.”

Welcoming the new guidelines Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime Strategy for Historic England, said:

“England’s heritage can’t be valued purely in economic terms. The impact of criminal damage and arson to our historic buildings and archaeological sites has far-reaching consequences over and above what has been damaged or lost. 

“Damage to our heritage comes in many forms. Whether it be graffiti painted on the walls of a historic church, vandalism to the stonework of an ancient castle or causing a fire that devastates a Medieval barn or Victorian pier; these offences have a detrimental impact on both the historic property or site and the local community in which it is located.

“The new guidelines will help the courts identify all the relevant factors to include in their sentencing decisions as they will now be able to consider ‘threats to cause criminal damage’, ‘the act of damage’ and ‘damage by fire’. It will also aid Historic England’s work with the Police and Crown Prosecution Service when cases involve damage caused to heritage or cultural assets.”

Neil Odin, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council Prevention Coordination Committee, commented:

“I fully support these new guidelines for dealing with arson attacks through the courts. Deliberate acts of arson are a blight on our local communities and have an economic impact on businesses.

“In addition, damage and the loss of historical buildings is disruptive and impacts on our vitally important heritage. Arson also increases demands on the already stretched resources of fire services across the country, which can result in diverting resources away from other incidents.

” It is worrying to see that there has been an upward trend of arson since 2014/15 and while we will continue with prevention work to reduce these figures, it is important the courts can deal with criminal damage appropriately, sending a clear message to other people.”

Notes to editors

  1. The guidelines apply to all offenders over the age of 18 and cover the following offences:

Offence

Example

Sentencing

Arson (criminal damage by fire)

Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1

Small fire set in a street litter bin or a fire that destroys a historic building or heritage site

Triable either way

Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months’ custody

Maximum when tried on indictment: Life imprisonment

Offence range: Discharge – 8 years’ custody

Criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or being reckless as to whether life endangered

Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(2)

Carefully planned and sophisticated arson attack intended to endanger lives or injure where fires are set at the entrances/exits to a house where a number of people are asleep at night.

Triable only on indictment

Maximum: Life imprisonment

Offence range: High level community order – 12 years’ custody

Criminal damage (other than by fire) exceeding £5,000

Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(1)

Damaging a number of cars on a car lot, using a key to scratch paint work, breaking off aerials etc, damage running into tens of thousands of pounds

 

Triable either way

Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months

Maximum when tried on indictment: 10 years’ custody

Offence range: Discharge – 4 years’ custody

Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage

Crime and Disorder Act 1988, section 30

[Where criminal damage (other than by fire) exceeds £5,000]

Smashing shop fittings, breaking all the windows, damaging stock in a shop. Using offensive racist language to the shopkeeper, using racist insults, which the offender also spray-painted on the walls. Damage well in excess of £5,000 

Triable either way.

Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months

Maximum when tried on indictment: 14 years’ custody

Criminal damage with a value not exceeding £5,000

Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(1)

 

Low level graffiti on a wall

 

 

 

Triable only summarily

Maximum: Level 4 fine and/or 3 months’ custody

Offence range: Discharge to 3 months’ custody

Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage

Crime and Disorder Act 1988, section 30

(Where criminal damage does not exceed £5,000)

Dented car door and broke side mirror following dispute with taxi driver over fare. Used racist language towards the driver 

Triable either way.

Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months custody.

Maximum when tried on indictment: 14 years’ custody.

Threats to destroy or damage property

Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 2

 

Threatened to burn down the house of the social worker who the offender thought was responsible for having their children taken into care. 

Triable either way.

Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months custody

Maximum when tried on indictment: 10 years’ custody

Offence range: Discharge to 4 years’ custody

 

  1. The figures below show the most recent information of the number of offenders who were dealt with under the Mental Health Act (MHA) 1983. The figures include hospital orders, restriction orders, guardianship orders and hospital and limitation directions:
  • In 2017, around 20 offenders sentenced for arson had a mental health order attached to their sentence under the MHA 1983. This comprises five per cent of all offenders sentenced for this offence.
  • In 2015 around 30 offenders sentenced for arson endangering life received a mental health order under the MHA 1983 (eight per cent of the total) while one person out of around 30 offenders received a mental health order for criminal damage endangering life
  • For the other offences covered by the guideline, the proportion in 2017 was one per cent or less.

This does not capture any offenders sentenced to a community order with a mental health treatment requirement attached.

  1. Existing sentencing guidance for these offences is limited. There is some guidance in the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (MCSG) for arson, criminal damage and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences. However, there are no guidelines for the Crown Court and none for criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or being reckless as to whether life endangered, or for threats to destroy or damage property.
  2. Where death results from an offence of arson or criminal damage, it is likely that the offender will be charged with murder or manslaughter instead of, or as well as, arson or criminal damage.
  3. Similarly, where injury is caused, it is likely that the offender will face other charges in addition to arson or criminal damage depending on the severity of the injury and the level of intent. 
  4. Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate considers it is not in the interest of justice to do so. If a judge or magistrate believes that a guideline prevents the correct sentence from being given in an exceptional case, he or she can sentence outside of the guideline.
  5. Guidelines set sentencing ranges within the maximum for the offence as set out in current legislation. When legislation changes, guidelines are amended as appropriate.

The Sentencing Council was established by Parliament to be an independent body, but accountable to Parliament for its work which is scrutinised by the Justice Select Committee. Justice Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the Sentencing Council’s effectiveness and efficiency, for its use of public funds and for protecting its independence. Judicial Council members are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the agreement of the Lord Chancellor. Non-judicial council members are appointed by the Lord Chancellor with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.

For more information, please contact Kathryn Montague, Sentencing Council Press Office, on 020 7071 5792 / 5788