Old Bailey Solicitors

The Legal Framework and Minimum Sentences for Arson

Arson is a crime which often captures headlines. It conjures images of blazing infernos and devastating loss. It is a subject that demands a nuanced understanding when it comes to the legal consequences of committing arson. What does the law actually say about arson? What does it mean? In England and Wales, the Criminal Damage Act 1971 serves as the legislative framework for arson offences. In this blog, we’ll delve into the Act, break down the legal jargon, and discuss the minimum sentence a perpetrator might expect to receive if they are convicted of arson.

What is Arson: A Brief Overview

Arson, put very simply, is criminal damage caused by fire. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 defines criminal damage as the act of ‘destroying or damaging property, belonging to another, without lawful excuse’. This can be done intentionally or recklessly.

To better understand the law, let’s break down the elements:

  1. Destroy or Damage – destroy means to render useless, damage means to cause time, effort or money to restore it to its original position.
  2. By Fire – the damage or destruction must be caused by fire.
  3. Property – any property which is tangible, whether real or personal. This can include land, buildings, personal possessions, money or vehicles to name a few.
  4. Belonging to Another – the property must belong to another person, but could also include jointly-owned property (for example, a TV which a husband-and-wife share)
  5. Without Lawful Excuse – there are three lawful excuses in law:
  6. Belief in the consent of the owner;
  7. Acting in self-defence;
  8. The damage was caused whilst protecting the property in question, with an honest belief that the property needed protection (very difficult to prove for arson).
  9. Intentionally OR Recklessly – Intentionally meaning to wish to bring about the resulting damage by fire. Recklessly meaning realising the risk of damage by fire, but proceeding anyway.

Examining the Sentence – what is the minimum?

There is no true ‘minimum’ punishment for the majority of offences in England and Wales. This owes to the fact that no two cases are the same, circumstances of any given case can have vast variances on the sentences available to the court.

The Sentencing Council publish a set of guidelines which indicates the sentence a person should receive on conviction of an offence. This is used as guidance for judges when deciding what sentence to pass.

In the case of the basic arson offence, the Sentencing Guidelines give a range of between a starting point of 4-years in custody to a low-level community order. You may be wondering why this range is so vast? Again, this is because of the potential differences between offences. Let’s consider further:

Person A has set fire to a bin on the side of the road. The bin is made of metal and the paper inside is burnt. The fire does not spread and goes out after a short while. The offence was committed on impulse as Person A was pressured into doing it by his friends as a joke.

Person B has also set fire to a bin. This time, the bin was inside a commercial warehouse. He did this at night when working as a security guard at the warehouse, nobody else was present. He used petrol to start the fire and placed the lit bin into an area with a lot of flammable material. Person B intended to burn down the warehouse to get revenge against his employer. The warehouse is burnt down, causing millions in losses.

Whilst both Person A and Person B have committed arson, the consequences of their respective actions are significantly different.  It is clear to see how disparate the impact of offences really can be. This is why there is no ‘minimum’ sentence for offences and each case is considered by the court on a case-by-case basis.

Aggravated Offence – Arson with Intent to Endanger Life

There is also an aggravated offence of arson, where a person intends or is reckless as to whether life would be endangered by their actions.

For a charge to be forthcoming for Arson with Intent to Endanger life, the suspect has to either intend – want to endanger life, or be reckless as to endangering life – realising the risk of burning a house with occupants at night time, for example.

Compared to the basic offence, the aggravated offence is treated much more seriously by the courts, and sentence for these offences, is equally higher.

Sentencing Guidelines – Aggravated Arson

In the case of aggravated arson, the minimum sentence a person could receive is a high-level community order. This might be in a case of being “reckless” as to whether life was endangered and very little damage caused/chance of life being endangered. Consider the above example for Person A but where the bin on the side of the road was instead mounted to the outside of a shop. The majority of cases of aggravated arson would have a much higher sentence.

The range of sentences for aggravated arson is from a starting point of 8-years in custody to 1-year in custody. In exceptional cases, the range of sentences could exceed 12-years in custody, with a maximum of life imprisonment being reserved for the most exceptional of cases.

Social and Psychological Dimensions

Arson is oftentimes not only a legal issue; it is a social and psychological one as well, especially in case of intentional arson with intent to endanger life. The act of setting fire intentionally often stems from deeper psychological issues, which encapsulates offences.

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Matt Bishop

Trainee Solicitor

Bespoke advice, when you need it the most

We have offices in Brighton, London and Horley and advise clients on all aspects of criminal defence allegations, including sexual offences, violent offences and drug offences.

A Case Study:

The resulting consequence of a long-standing drug and alcohol misuse issue, coupled with deeply embedded trauma led to our client setting fire to a vehicle. The client’s trauma meant that he had zero recollection of the events, but the evidence strongly pointed to our client having committed the offence.

Our team supported our client through the legal process. He had no previous convictions or experience of the criminal justice system. The world of crime can induce feelings of confusion, fear and uncertainty, especially for persons who have psychological problems. The present case was supported by the instruction of multiple psychologists and psychiatrists to assist in commenting on this dimension, ultimately identifying a series of mental health issues which had previously gone undiagnosed.

These expert reports were used to assist the client in mitigation, and whilst not providing him with an excuse for the offence, gave context to the circumstances in his life which he found himself in and offered some explanation for his potentially catastrophic actions.

Arson is not only a serious offence, but a complex one too.  It can have life altering consequences for those accused. As we have explored throughout this blog, the legal landscape surrounding arson is intricate, with various factors influencing both sentence and outcome.

If you have been accused of arson, or any form of criminal damage, the importance of seeking qualified, competent and strong legal advice as early as possible cannot be overstated. Old Bailey Solicitors are committed to providing our clients with clear, honest and considered legal advice. We understand that no two cases or clients are the same, not their circumstances nor the offences alleged against them.  As such, our advice is non-judgmental and tailored to the specific facts of your case.  Contact Old Bailey Solicitors on 0207 8464 999 or email [email protected] to arrange an appointment.

Matt Bishop headshot

Matt Bishop

Trainee Solicitor

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