What is Considered Criminal Damage to Property?

By April 9, 2024 Criminal Law


Criminal damage, as defined by UK law, encompasses any offence which results in the damage or destruction of property belonging to another person.  In this guide, we will consider the legal framework surrounding criminal damage in the UK, exploring its definition, elements, penalties, and relevant case law.

Definition of Criminal Damage:

In response to the question “What is considered criminal damage to property?” the Criminal Damage Act 1971 defines the offence as follows:

“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.”

Lawful Excuses

There are three potential defences to an allegation of criminal damage:

  • The defendant was acting in self-defence and the force used was reasonable.
  • The defendant honestly believed that the owner of the property had given their consent, or the owner would have consented had they known the circumstances.
  • The defendant inflicted the damage to protect other property, which they honestly believed needed protecting, and the damage caused was reasonable.

Acts that Constitute Criminal Damage to Property

Criminal damage encompasses a broad spectrum of intentional or reckless actions that pose a threat to property, each defined and addressed by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

1. Arson

Arson is a serious offence involving the intentional or reckless destruction of property by fire or by intending by the destruction or damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would thereby be damaged. Arson is the only type of criminal damage where the offence can be committed by causing damage to your own property. The severity of the offence and potential penalties may vary depending upon factors such as the extent and value of the damage caused and whether anyone was harmed or at serious risk of harm.

2. Aggravated criminal damage

The offence of aggravated criminal damage occurs when there is also an intention to endanger life as well, either intentionally or recklessly.  The presence of such elements escalates the severity of the offence, leading to more severe legal consequences upon conviction.

3. Racially and religiously aggravated criminal damage/arson

Section 30 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 created an offence of racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage. Committing these offences with a bias against someone’s race or religion constitutes a distinct and aggravated form of criminal damage. UK law takes a strong stance against hate crimes, ensuring that perpetrators face more severe penalties when discriminatory motives have fuelled their actions.

4. Destroying or damaging property

The fundamental act constituting criminal damage involves intentionally or recklessly destroying or damaging property without lawful justification. This encompasses a broad range of actions, from breaking physical objects and causing harm to structures or land to acting in a manner that is “reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged”.

5. Threat to destroy or damage property

Even the act of threatening to destroy or damage property without carrying out the actual destruction can be considered a criminal offence. Section 2 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 makes it unlawful to threaten to destroy property belonging to the person threatened or another person or threatening to destroy the defendant’s own property in a way which is likely to endanger the life of the person threatened or another person. UK law takes such threats seriously as they reflect the intent to cause fear, distress or economic loss. This provision helps prevent potential harm and ensures legal penalties can be imposed upon those who use threats to intimidate or coerce others.

6. Possessing anything with intent to destroy or damage property

Section 3 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 makes it an offence to possess any item with the intent to use it to destroy or cause damage to property. This provision aims to address circumstances where individuals are found in possession of tools, substances or implements with clear indications of an intention to cause criminal damage. This serves as a preventative measure, allowing legal action to be taken before actual harm occurs.

7. Heritage Crime

Where damage is caused to England’s heritage assets such as World Heritage Sites, Scheduled Monuments, Grade 1 & 2 Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas, Protected Marine Wreck Sites and Military Remains and other sites of archaeological interest, a prosecution for criminal damage may be brought against the offender, but it may be more appropriate to bring a prosecution under other legislation such as the Treasure Act 1996, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 or the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.

 Penalties for Criminal Damage:

The severity of penalties for criminal damage depends on various factors, including the value of the property damaged, the nature of the offense, and the defendant’s culpability. In the UK, criminal damage is categorised into three classes:

1.  Criminal Damage Under £5,000: The maximum penalty is six months imprisonment, but it is more commonplace for a fine or a community-based penalty to be imposed.

2.  Criminal Damage Over £5,000: The maximum penalty available in the crown court is 10 years imprisonment.  The court would have the full range of sentencing options available to them including suspended prison sentences and community orders.

3. Arson/Aggravated Criminal Damage: In cases where the offence is deemed aggravated, the courts may impose even harsher penalties, including lengthy prison terms.  The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Case Law and Precedents:

Several landmark cases have shaped the interpretation and application of criminal damage laws in the UK. For instance, in the case of R v. Denton (1982), the Court of Appeal clarified that the offence of criminal damage includes reckless behaviour resulting in damage, even if the defendant did not intend to cause harm.

In R v. Whiteley (1991), the House of Lords held that the defendant’s belief that the property belonged to them did not constitute a lawful excuse for criminal damage, emphasising the importance of respecting the property rights of others.


Criminal damage encompasses a range of offences involving the destruction or damage to property, and understanding its legal implications is essential for both individuals and legal practitioners if they are to stay on the right side of the law.  By familiarising oneself with the elements, penalties, and relevant case law surrounding criminal damage in the UK, individuals can better navigate the legal system and ensure compliance with the law while respecting the rights of others and protecting property interests.