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New guidelines for sentencing arsonists

09 July 2019

THE ANNOUNCEMENT that judges and magistrates are to be given clearer guidelines on handing down sentences to arsonists and vandals has the support of the National Fire Chiefs Council.

The guidance, issued by the Sentencing Council and coming into effect on October 1 2019, will apply to magistrates' and crown courts. Previously guidance was limited and only issued to magistrates for offences such as arson, criminal damage offences including incidents which are racially or religiously aggravated, and threats to destroy or damage property.

The sentences are not necessarily tougher than before, but how the sentence should be reached and the range of punishments available are to be set out more clearly, according to the sentencing body.

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 has 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 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."

Home Office figures show that deliberate fires have increased by 17 per cent since 2014/15, rising from 68,520 to 80,593.

The fresh guidelines would see courts take `full account of the harm caused by offences', such as criminal damage which leads to severe disruption of public services or when historic buildings are ravaged by a fire which was started deliberately.

Courts will be told to consider 'the economic and social impact' on public services targeted such as when there is a fire at a school, damage at a train station or the strain put on emergency services by resources being diverted from other incidents when having to attend the scene.

The extent of damage to listed buildings and historic objects should also be considered, according to the guidelines.

The guidance includes a range of sentences depending on the severity of the crime, allowing judges to hand down life sentences for arson or criminal damage with up to eight or 12 years behind bars respectively.

Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage in excess of £5,000 can also carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.

Judges and magistrates also have the chance to order reports to decide whether a mental disorder or learning disability was a factor in the crime.

Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime strategy for Historic England - who also welcomed the move, said, "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.''

Sentencing Council member 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."