Criminal Damage by Fire (Arson) - A Case Study
A single stand-alone charge of intentionally and without lawful excuse damaging property by setting it on fire, committing arson (section 197 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic).
Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court – August 2023.
Summary of facts
Our client had resided alone at the same property for over ten (10) years.
It was alleged that she purchased a five-litre petrol can containing unleaded petrol from a nearby Petrol Station. It was further alleged that our client then poured the petrol throughout the property, using it as an accelerant and setting fire to the living room before causing other parts of the house to become immersed in fire. Subsequently, this caused significant damage.
Our client contacted “Triple 0” to report the incident. Upon Police attendance, it was established that our client was mentally unwell. As a result, she was detained under Section 351 of the Mental Health Act 2014 and transported to a Mental Health Facility where she was admitted as an involuntary inpatient for a period of seven (7) weeks.
Following forensic examination, it was revealed that the damage to the property was indeed caused by an intentional fire through the presence of flammable liquid scattered throughout the property.
What happened at Court?
Our office considered the possibility of a defence of mental impairment. However, our client instructed our office to finalise the matter by way of a plea of guilty for various reasons. Consequently, the matter was listed for a fixture plea at a later date to allow our office to obtain medical material pertaining to our client’s underlying mental health issues.
Our office contacted the following Medical Professionals for reports to tender on the plea date:
- Treating Psychiatrist;
- Treating General Practitioner (GP);
- NDIS Support Coordinator;
- Relationship Manager; and
- Occupational Therapist.
As per the Medical Disclosure obtained, it was revealed that our client was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder with psychotic features, as well as a history of opiate dependence. Respectfully and consistent with reports, it was argued that our client suffered from a psychotic episode at the time of the alleged offending.
In submissions in mitigation, our office referenced the case of R v Verdins (2007) 16 VR 295. We argued that all principles are applicable but specifically, applied greater emphasis to the principles of Moral Culpability, General and Specific Deterrence. In that, our client was suffering from a mental impairment at the time of the alleged offending thus, reducing her moral culpability. Where moral capacity is reduced, denunciation will be a less relevant factor in sentencing.
We agued that because our client appeared before the Court with no criminal priors and at a mature age, general and specific deterrence as a feature of the sentencing process should also not be given great weight as our client is not likely to re-offend. Moreover, given the nature and severity of our client’s symptoms and moral capacity at the time of the alleged offending, the sentencing objectives of deterrence could be moderated or limited through her continuous engagement with her medical team.
With respect to the financial damage caused as a result of the arson, Victoria Police sought a Restitution/Compensation Order. At Court, our office argued that our client was unemployed and currently receiving a Disability Support Pension (DSP) from Centrelink as her sole source of income.
We argued that our client is not financially in a position to pay a restitution order and ultimately the Magistrate declined to make the Order.
On a plea of guilty to Criminal Damage (by Arson), pursuant to section 197 of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic), our client was sentenced to a without conviction, 12-month Adjourned Undertaking with the following conditions:
To be of good behaviour for the period;
Continue treatment with her GP, NDIS Support Coordinator, or their nominee;
Continue receiving support and engagement with her Relationship Manager; and
Provide evidence to the Court of continued treatment with such services by the end of the Adjournment period.