The term criminal damage is used to describe a situation where an individual unlawfully and with the intention or recklessness to cause damage or destruction to property that belongs to another individual.
Offences such as arson, graffiti on a public building or forcing entry to a property are all examples of criminal damage. The damage caused doesn’t have to be permanent; it can also be temporary, even if the damage can be quickly repaired or remedied, the individual can still be convicted of criminal damage.
Criminal Damage and the Law
Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, you will find the offences of criminal damage. There are specific offences which are incorporated into the Malicious Damage Act of 1861 but these primarily relate to damage caused to the railways.
An offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 can only be proven if certain elements are established:
- The individual caused any form of damage, whether this was permanent or temporary
- The actions caused damage to someone’s property
- The property that was damaged belonged to another person
- The damage was caused without any lawful excuse
- There was a direct intention to cause damage or the individual was reckless as to whether damage would result from their actions
While there is no specific definition of ‘damage’ within the legislation from 1971, it is at the discretion of the courts to decide on each case whether damage was caused. In order to do this, the court will need to carefully examine the facts from the case.
Damage however can be interpreted in many different ways:
- As outlined above, the damage does not have to be permanent. Actions such as throwing paint over a vehicle or throwing eggs at a property are both classed as damage
- The damage does not necessarily have to be visible. If the damage has a detrimental impact on the way in which the property functions, it can still be classed as damage, even though it may not be visible.
Under Section 10 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, the meaning of property is clearly defined. This meaning also incorporates land. Therefore, if waste is left on another person’s land, this will be classed as criminal damage.
To determine whether an act falls under the definition of criminal damage, it has to satisfy one of several criteria.
- Without lawful excuse – Under Section 5 of the 1971 legislation, there is a defence of ‘lawful excuse’. This can be used in situations where at the time of the incident, the individual genuinely believed that they had consent or if the damage was caused to protect the property of the individual and the means that they took to protect their property were reasonable.
- Recklessness – To prove an offence of criminal damage, two key elements must be proven. The first is that the defendant acted in a reckless or intentional manner. To act recklessly this means a situation where they are aware of the risk or in the circumstances it was unreasonable to take such a risk.
- Intent to endanger life – Under Section 1(2) of the legislation it is an offence to damage or destroy property which would endanger the life of another. If the damage results from a fire, the offender will be charged with arson with intent.
If the individual is charged with damaging property through arson or otherwise a number of other charges will also be applicable:
- The intention to damage or destroy property or being reckless as to whether the property would be damaged or destroyed and the intention to endanger life
- The intention to damage or destroy property through recklessness or little thought as to whether damage or destruction would be caused and no thought as to whether life would be in danger
In a situation where it is not particularly clear whether there was recklessness or intention, the offender will be charged on both offences.
Threat to damage or destroy property – In line with Section 2 of the Act from 1971, there are two offences which fall under the category of threats to damage or destroy:
- The first relates to property that belongs to the individual who has been threatened
- The second relates to the defendant’s own property but it is made in such a way that it will endanger the life of an individual who has been threatened or a third party
In both of these situations there must be the ‘intention’ there. The individual must feel as though the threat would be followed through.
In cases where criminal damage is lower than £5000 the maximum sentence for the offender will be a six month custodial sentence. Where the damage is in excess of £5,000, the maximum sentence will be 10 years in prison. If offences are religiously or racially motivated, the offender may receive a longer sentence.
Criminal damage is caused with malice and intent with the aim to cause damage to the home, someone else’s property or a vehicle. It also includes graffiti and arson. Arson will include any offence of setting fire to buildings, vehicles or any type of property.
If you have been a victim of criminal damage, there are several steps that you can take to reduce the likelihood of it occurring in future:
- If property is involved and it has been damaged, it is strongly recommended that you arrange for repairs to be carried out as quickly as possible. Property which is vandalised is often a target and can result in even further criminal damage.
- Maintain a detailed record of events that you believe are related to the offence and any criminal damage or harassment which has occurred since the initial offence
- If at all possible, try to take images or video footage as evidence. This should be done with caution however and it should not place you at risk
- Install home security and ensure that it is in good working order
Criminal damage is a serious offence and sentences can be severe, resulting in lengthy custodial sentences. If you need further advice on any aspect of criminal damage, it is important that you seek expert legal advice as soon as possible.
About the author:
This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team and posted by Lloyd Barrett. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.