Courts are expected to get tougher on people who vandalise listed buildings, start a fire at a school or cause criminal damage at a train station under guidelines unveiled today. The Sentencing Council says its arson guidelines, which come into force in October, acknowledge that harm can include psychological effects and damage to property can be about more than just the financial value.
Offences covered by the guidelines include arson with intent to endanger life or being reckless as to whether life is endangered, criminal damage where the value is less than £5,000, racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage, and threats to destroy or damage property.
Courts will take into account the full impact of the offence, such as vandalism on national heritage assets, 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. Judges and magistrates will also consider requesting reports to see if the offence is linked to a mental disorder or learning disability to assess culpability.
Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro QC, a member of the Sentencing Council, said the guidelines ensure that courts can consider all the consequences, 'from a treasured family photo being destroyed to someone nearly losing their life and home in a calculated and vengeful arson attack'.
At present, magistrates' courts have some guidance for arson, criminal damage, and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences, but there is no guidance for Crown courts. There are no guidelines for criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life is endangered, or for threats to destroy or damage property.
Neil Odin, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council prevention coordination committee, said the number of arson-related incidents has risen since 2014 and 'it is important the courts can deal with criminal damage appropriately, sending a clear message to other people'.
The Magistrates' Association welcomed the guidelines. John Bache JP, national chair, said: 'These new guidelines will be very helpful to magistrates dealing with these important cases and clearly set out the relevant factors in determining harm, beyond a focus on physical damage. It is, however, right that if an offender has mental health conditions or learning disabilities then courts must obtain assessments to fully understand whether this impacts on their culpability, and this guideline will help to ensure that this happens.'