The size of the problem

In recent years, concern about the increase in fire-raising has been expressed worldwide. However, recorded offence figures only provide a partial picture, since it is often very difficult to determine whether or not a fire has been raised deliberately. For this reason, fire services in the United Kingdom refer to fires as being of 'doubtful' or 'malicious ignition'.(6) In England and Wales, the number of persons found guilty of, or cautioned for, arson or criminal damage endangering life has followed a fluctuating but slightly decreasing course for the past 5 years. (7) However, more recent figures show a considerable increase in arson attacks on homes.(8)

A more reliable picture of the real size of the problem can be obtained from the Home Office Summary Fire Statistics,(9) published biennially. The figures for 1996 indicate a 7 per cent increase in malicious fires in 1996 compared with the previous year. These resulted chiefly from more attacks on cars and dwellings. In 1996 the total number of malicious fires was 90 600. The way these were made up is shown in Table H

Dwtlkç IS 500

Oti-f r builds 11000

Orto Mdsn S 2M

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Table 1 Total number of malicious fires in 1996 (England and Wales)

An interesting feature of recent fire-raising activity is the increase in the number of attacks on all vehicles and schools. (1J.> The law in the United Kingdom

Legal definitions of arson vary from country to country. (:!.2> No attempt is made to define it here other than for the United Kingdom. Prior to 1971, the offence was dealt with under the common law. Currently, it is dealt with under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Similar provisions apply in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, it is dealt with under a number of common law offences. Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 states:

1. A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.

2. A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property, whether belonging to himself or another—

a. intending to destroy or damage any property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged; and b. intending by the destruction or damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would be thereby endangered; shall be guilty of an offence.

3. An offence committed under this section by destroying or damaging property by fire shall be charged as arson (emphasis added).

Under Section 4 of the Act, the offences of arson and endangering life are punishable with maximum penalties of life imprisonment.

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