Arson: A Criminal Offence on the Rise in Australia

Why are arson cases on the rise in Australia?

Arson is relatively a criminal offence of low incidence in comparison to other offences in Australia such as supplying or possessing a prohibited drug, or domestic violence. However, it is a crime of great interest because the cost of arson related damage has an enormous effect on the Australian economy. Each year fire results in approximately $600 million in damage and arson accounts for about 30% of that figure (Café & Stern).

Bushfires alone cost Australians in excess of $44 million last year with 40,000 of these bushfires being deliberately set. “The estimated property loss associated with arson totaled $971m for 2011” [and] the total cost of arson in Australia for 2011 was $2.3b.”

In the case of the Black Saturday arson, Brendan Sokulak was found guilty of setting a bushfire that “killed 10 people, razed 150 homes and destroyed 36,000 hectares of land.”

However, arson results in much more than the financial cost of repairing damaged property and replacing goods lost to arson. The social costs of arson include:

– higher insurance premiums,
– pollution to the environment and loss of natural resources,
– the cost related to maintaining and developing infrastructure such as the police, fire brigades, courts and social services,
– costs associated with property loss,
– higher taxes, and
– increased costs associated with the construction of new buildings with special fire resistant materials.

Fires also impact communities because they disrupt the normal social and economic flow of the region.

There are other costs that result from arson that do not have a number value attached and they include the cost in human life. In the case of the Quakers Hill nursing home fire, Roger Dean devastated families when he incinerated clients in their beds as a means to cover up the fact that he had stolen medication from the facility.

Arson defined under Australian Legislation

According to the Model Criminal Code (Clause 4.1.7 of Chapter Four)
Arson is a criminal act involving a
A person who:
(a) causes damage to a building or conveyance by means of fire or explosive, and
(b) intends to cause or is reckless as to causing, damage to that or any other building or conveyance” is guilty of arson and if convicted can receive a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment.

A person can also be found guilty of threatening to use fire or explosives to damage someone’s property. If found guilty they could be subject to a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment:

Bushfires have their own distinct provision in the Crimes Act under arson in which it entails the “‘reckless’ spreading, lighting, maintaining and failing to contain a fire to vegetation on property belonging to another.” The maximum penalty for this is 15 years imprisonment. This Bushfire clause focuses more on the creation of risk than the harm that is inflicted because fires and their consequences are so unpredictable.

In the NSW Criminal Code arson is described as “maliciously destroying or damaging property by fire or explosive” and comes with a 14 year maximum penalty. If it is “maliciously destroying or damaging property with the intention of endangering life,” the penalty increases to a maximum 25 years.

Why is arson such a difficult crime to prosecute?

Arson is a very difficult crime to prosecute because police and fire service personal lack the proper arson training for investigating and preserving the crime scene, there is no clear evidence to support motive, evidence is often destroyed by the fire, there are few witnesses, and it is very difficult to establish a conclusive cause of the fire.

Conviction rates for arson are also very low. According to Arson Briefing Paper No2/03 by the Parliament of NSW, “less than 10% of arsonists are convicted due to the difficulties of proving that a fire was deliberately lit and securing enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the offender committed the crime (p 13).”

Low conviction rates and difficulty prosecuting arson cases make it the crime of choice for criminals to hide other crimes such as insurance fraud, motor vehicle theft, and property damage. Arson is often as a result of anger or resentment such as in the case of domestic violence or school fires.

Finally, a study by the Institute of Criminology on the cases of arson-homicide in Australia: indicates that “offenders may now be using fire in homicides more frequently than previously” The study suggests that this might be due to the “offenders wanting to destroy evidence and evading capture” just like everyone sees on CSI shows.