According to Home Office Statistics the offence of Criminal Damage is one of the top ten most prosecuted crimes in the United Kingdom. It is also one of the most frequently abused by way of prosecutions being brought against individuals in circumstances where no offence has been committed. Criminal Damage allegations are often needlessly brought in neighbor disputes, when relationships break down or in Road Traffic disputes. Often the allegations have no basis in fact and can be highly damaging to those against whom they are brought, often persons with no previous convictions whose reputation and livelihood could be badly damaged by a criminal conviction.
What is Criminal Damage?
The offence of criminal damage is prosecuted under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The offence relates to the unlawful damage of property belonging to another either meaning to damage the property or being reckless as to whether it is damaged.
If the value involved is less than £5,000 it is classed as a 'summary only' offence which means that it is only triable in the Magistrates Court (unless it accompanies a more serious offence).
If the value is over £5,000 then the offence is triable 'either way'- in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
If the offence is aggravated under s1 (2) - endangering life or s1 (3) - arson then the offence is 'indictable only' and can be tried only in the Crown Court.
Criminal Damage is a serious matter and carries a maximum sentence upon conviction of 6 months imprisonment in the Magistrates Court, 10 years imprisonment in the Crown Court and up to Life imprisonment for the aggravated offence.
What are the elements of the offence of Criminal Damage?
'Damage'- this is widely interpreted to include not only permanent or temporary physical harm but also permanent or temporary impairment of value. This means that the Court are quick to criminalise what can be seen as pretty trivial acts of nuisance.
Examples of where the Court has accepted that there has been 'damage' are-
- taking away part of a machine so that it cannot work
- diluting milk with water
- dumping rubbish on land
- applying water soluble paint to a pavement
- putting mud on a wall.
'Property' means property of a tangible nature whether real or personal including money and pets.
'Belonging to another' means that another person has custody or control of the property or having a legal interest in the property or having a charge over the property.
'Intending to destroy or damage the property' relates to someone meaning to damage the property or 'being reckless as to whether any property is damaged'- recklessness is a tricky legal concept but it boils down to doing an action where one is aware that there is a risk that the property will be damaged and in the circumstances of the action it is unreasonable to take that risk. If a person closes his mind to the question of risk then the Courts will usually find that he has been reckless.
What defences are available to Criminal Damage?
There are many defences to Criminal Damage. You will need a specialist lawyer to advise you on whether they apply to your case as many are very legally technical.
The defences include:
- The item damaged was not 'property';
- There was no damage as a matter of law;
- The property did not belong to another;
- There was lawful excuse for the damage- such lawful excuse can be self defence, defence of another or necessity (having no choice but to do it);
- The action that resulted in the damaged was not done either deliberately or recklessly.
There may be other defences available but they will specific to the facts of the offence, you should obtain advice if suspected of Criminal Damage.
What to do if the police want to speak to me about Criminal Damage?
If you are suspected of or charged with Criminal Damage you should speak to a specialist in the area immediately. It is vital that you do not speak to the police or make any admissions before first obtaining specialist advice as you would not want to prejudice any potential defence, such are the legal complexities of many of the defences outlined above that the average person may not know that they have a perfectly good defence to the charge before the law is explained to them.
If you find yourself in trouble in respect of an offence of Criminal Damage contact Quentin Hunt, a specialist barrister with extensive experience in and an enviable track record in criminal damage prosecutions.