Burnt out interior of church
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St Mary’s Church in Westry, Cambridgeshire which was destroyed in an arson attack in 2010. It reopened in 2014 after a £2.2 million renovation © Ecclesiastical Insurance
St Mary’s Church in Westry, Cambridgeshire which was destroyed in an arson attack in 2010. It reopened in 2014 after a £2.2 million renovation © Ecclesiastical Insurance

New Sentencing Guidelines For Offenders Who Cause Damage To Heritage and Cultural Assets

For the first time, courts in England and Wales will consider the full impact of arson or criminal damage such as vandalism to national heritage assets, including listed buildings, historic objects or unique parts of our historic environment. The new guidelines published by the Sentencing Council come into effect on 1 October 2019.

The guidelines also highlight that damage to historic buildings, archaeological sites or objects can destroy unique parts of the country’s history, and this damage should be taken into account during the sentencing process.

The courts will also consider:

  • 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 which can have a real impact on local communities or cause economic hardship to neighbouring houses or businesses.
  • that harm can involve not only physical injury but long-term psychological effects, and that damage to property can be about more than just its financial value.
  • significant impact on emergency services that respond to the criminal activity thus diverting resources from any other incidents in the area.
  • criminal damage or arson with intent to endanger life or is reckless as to whether life will be endangered offences, for example a carefully planned and sophisticated arson attack intended to endanger life
Chapel wall covered in graffiti
Lawns Chapel in Swindon was sprayed with graffiti earlier this year © Swindon Borough Council

The new guidelines, which apply to both Magistrates courts and Crown Court, cover:

  • Arson
  • Criminal damage / arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life endangered
  • Criminal damage where the damage has a value of more than £5000
  • Criminal damage where the damage has a value of less than £5000
  • Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage
  • Threats to destroy or damage property

Existing sentencing guidance for these offences is limited. There is some guidance in the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (MCSG) for arson, criminal damage and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage offences. However, there are no guidelines for the Crown Court and none for criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life endangered, or for threats to destroy or damage property.

Welcoming the new guidelines, Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime Strategy for Historic England said:

England's heritage can't be valued purely in economic terms. 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. Damage to our heritage comes in many forms. Whether it be graffiti painted on the walls of a historic church; vandalism to the stonework of an ancient castle; or causing a fire that devastates a Medieval barn or Victorian pier, these offences have a detrimental impact on both the historic property or site and the local community in which it is located.

The new guidelines will help the courts identify all the relevant factors to include in their sentencing decisions as they will now be able to consider, 'threats to cause criminal damage', 'the act of damage' and 'damage by fire'. It will also aid Historic England's work with the Police and Crown Prosecution Service when cases involve damage caused to heritage or cultural assets.

Burnt out interior of church
St Mary’s Church in Westry, Cambridgeshire which was destroyed in an arson attack in 2010. It reopened in 2014 after a £2.2 million renovation © Ecclesiastical Insurance

1. The guidelines apply to all offenders over the age of 18 and cover the following offences:

  • Arson (criminal damage by fire) - Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1 - For example, a small fire set in a street litter bin
  • Criminal damage/arson with intent to endanger life or reckless as to whether life endangered - Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(2) - Carefully planned arson attack intended to endanger lives for example a fire set at doors of occupied buildings
  • Criminal damage (other than by fire) value over £5,000 - Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(1) - For example, damaging multiple cars in a car park
  • Criminal damage with a value not exceeding £5,000 - Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 1(1) - For example, graffiti on a wall
  • Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage - Crime and Disorder Act 1988, section 30 - For example, denting a car door and using racist/religious language to owner
  • Threats to destroy or damage property - Criminal Damage Act 1971, section 2 - For example, threatening to burn down a neighbour’s house following a verbal dispute

2. Where death results from an offence of arson or criminal damage it is likely that the offender will be charged with murder or manslaughter instead of, or as well as, arson or criminal damage.

3. Similarly, where injury is caused, it is likely that the offender will face other charges in addition to arson or criminal damage depending on the severity of the injury and the level of intent.

4. Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate considers it is not in the interests of justice to do so. If a judge or magistrate believes that a guideline prevents the correct sentence from being given in an exceptional case, he or she can sentence outside of the guideline.

5. Guidelines set sentencing ranges within the maximum for the offence as set out in current legislation. When legislation changes, guidelines are amended as appropriate.

6. The Sentencing Council was established by Parliament to be an independent body, but accountable to Parliament for its work which is scrutinised by the Justice Select Committee. Justice Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the Sentencing Council’s effectiveness and efficiency, for its use of public funds and for protecting its independence. Judicial Council members are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the agreement of the Lord Chancellor. Non-judicial council members are appointed by the Lord Chancellor with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.

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