Arson is an indictable offence in every Australian state and territory
however it is usually prosecuted summarily (pp 2-11). Malicious destruction and
damage of property by fire is the terminology used by the Crimes Act
1900 (NSW) rather than arson. Nevertheless, this paper treats the term
arson as synonymous with malicious destruction and damage by fire, in
accordance with general community understanding of the crime. The maximum
penalty that may be imposed in New South Wales for the conviction of an arson
offence is a term of imprisonment for 14 years. This is at the lower end of the
scale when compared to the statutory penalty for arson in the remaining
Australian states and territories.
The destruction caused by fire is often a matter of chance as it depends on
the amount of time that passes before it is extinguished (p 11). Fire is often
chosen as a weapon as it does not require any particular skill to light a fire
once a person possesses the right ignition materials (p 12). Despite the number
of recorded incidents of arson in NSW being over 7000 in 2001 and increasing,
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).
Public discussion of the issues surrounding arson has recently centred on
the connection between arson and bushfires. However, arsonists also target
schools, homes, commercial premises and motor vehicles (p 14). Accordingly, a
wide variety of organisations have an interest in combating arson including the
police and fire services, state forests, Roads and Transit Authority, the
department of education, local councils and insurance companies (p 16).
The popularity of psychological profiling has increased in recent times as
it is hoped that it may assist in the detection of offenders. However the
motivations behind arson attacks are diverse and not always easily categorised.
Motivations may be acquisitive, vindictive, instrumental or cathartic in
nature, or there may be no discernable motive at all. Juveniles may have
different motives to adult arsonists. Research has shown that the majority of
arsonists are young, male and unemployed (p 17).
The media has the ability to influence the public's perception of the
frequency of arson attacks. Newspaper and television reports abounded with
stories of arsonists during the 2001 Christmas bushfires and again in the
November/December 2002 bushfire crisis. Some have expressed a concern that
extensive television coverage of the bushfires is encouraging potential
arsonists. However, media coverage of the fires also plays a valuable role by
increasing public awareness of fire dangers and responsibilities as well as
gaining support for fire personnel (p 24).
A number of strategies, both legislative and otherwise, have been developed
in NSW to counter the effects and rate of arson (pp 25-31). Every Australian
introduced intervention programs that target juvenile firelighters (pp
31-35). However, only Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland have dedicated
arson squads specifically trained to deal with fire scenes. The United States
of America and the United Kingdom also experience a high rate of arson at
enormous cost to the community. Various policies and initiatives have been
developed that aim to reduce the rate of arson in those countries (pp 35-38).
The way forward is not certain and various organisations have offered their
suggestions (pp 38-42). Socio-economic factors need to be considered, as well
as the further development of arson prevention programs and fire investigation
techniques. Many writers have emphasised the benefits of a collaborative
response to arson, where relevant organisations share their specialised
knowledge and other resources.