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Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 02/2003 by Talina Drabsch
Arson costs the community approximately $600 million every year. Concerns were raised throughout 2002 that not enough was being done to protect the community from the devastation of deliberately lit bushfires.

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 jurisdiction has

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.