New sentencing guidelines that will see the courts take full account of the harm caused by offences such as arson attacks on historic buildings or criminal damage leading to severe disruption of public services were published today by the Sentencing Council.

For the first time, all courts in England and Wales will have formal guidance to ensure that they take account of:

  • The full impact of arson or criminal damage such as vandalism on national heritage assets including listed buildings, historic objects or unique parts of national heritage and history.
  • 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 adversely affect local communities or cause economic hardship to neighbouring houses or businesses.
  • The effect on communities when an area’s emergency services or resources are diverted to deal with an incident of criminal activity.

The guidelines acknowledge 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.


firefighters on scene of fire


Judges and magistrates will also consider requesting reports to ascertain both whether the offence is linked to a mental disorder or learning disability in order to assess culpability, and whether any mental health disposal should be considered.

The guidelines, which come into effect on 1 October 2019, will help to ensure that sentencing by judges and magistrates will be consistent across the whole range of these offences. Limited guidance exists in magistrates’ courts, but the new guidelines apply to all courts.

The new guidelines cover the following offences:

  • Arson – criminal damage by fire
  • Criminal damage / arson with intent to endanger life or being 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

Sentencing Council member Her Honour Judge Sarah Munro QC said:

“The Council’s guidelines ensure that courts can consider all the consequences of arson and criminal damage offences, from a treasured family photo being destroyed to someone nearly losing their life and home in a calculated and vengeful arson attack.”

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.”

Neil Odin, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council Prevention Coordination Committee, commented:

“I fully support these new guidelines for dealing with arson attacks through the courts. Deliberate acts of arson are a blight on our local communities and have an economic impact on businesses.

"In addition, damage and the loss of historical buildings is disruptive and impacts on our vitally important heritage. Arson also increases demands on the already stretched resources of fire services across the country, which can result in diverting resources away from other incidents.

" It is worrying to see that there has been an upward trend of arson since 2014/15 and while we will continue with prevention work to reduce these figures, it is important the courts can deal with criminal damage appropriately, sending a clear message to other people."

Justice Minister Robert Buckland said:

"Beyond the financial cost to victims, arson and criminal damage are serious offences which can risk lives and leave lasting psychological harm.

"So it is right that courts have clear and consistent guidance when sentencing offenders to ensure punishments properly fit the crime."