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

By Agencies
July 5, 2019

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 have been published 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.”

Mark Day, head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust said: “A significant proportion of people who commit arson have a mental health need, learning disability or autism. This guideline highlights the importance of courts obtaining a proper assessment of any underlying mental health condition or disorder before deciding the degree to which someone can be held responsible for what happened, and sets out a clear process for doing so, including full engagement with liaison and diversion services. This should lead to the fairer and more appropriate treatment of vulnerable defendants in our courts.”

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.”

* The Sentencing Council for England and Wales

* Prison Reform Trust


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