Criminal damage

What is meant by criminal damage?

Criminal damage occurs when someone unlawfully, and intentionally or recklessly, damages or destroys property belonging to another person.

Examples of criminal damage include arson, forced entry into a property, and graffiti on a public building. It can be permanent destruction or damage, or temporary – so even if the damage can be quickly rectified or repaired, an offender can still be convicted of criminal damage.

What is the law on criminal damage?

The offences of criminal damage are set out in the Criminal Damage Act 1971. In addition, specific offences are contained within the Malicious Damage Act 1861 in relation mainly to damage to railways. To prove the offence of causing criminal damage under the 1971 Act, the following elements need to be established:

  • Damage (temporary or permanent) was caused.
  • That damage occurred to property.
  • The damaged property belonged to another.
  • The damage was caused without lawful excuse.
  • An intention to cause the damage, or recklessness as to whether damage would be caused.


There is no specific definition of ‘damage’ contained within the 1971 Act so it is up to the court on a case-by-case basis to decide whether there has been damage in the circumstances of each case. The courts have interpreted the meaning of ‘damage’ widely, for instance:

  • There is no requirement for the damage to be permanent. Criminal damage has, therefore, included smearing mud or paint on property or throwing eggs at a vehicle.
  • The damage does not have to be visible. If, for example, the damage affects the proper functioning of the property it may still amount to damage, even if it not visible.


Property is widely defined by Section 10 of the 1971 Act and includes land. This means that if waste is dumped onto another person’s land, this will fall within the definition of criminal damage. Property would include any tangible property.

Belonging to another

Property will be deemed to belong to any person who has custody or control of it, or who has a legal right or interest in it, or a charge on it. This means that an owner can even cause ‘criminal’ damage to their own property if, at the same time, it belongs to someone else falling within the definition contained in Section 10. An example would be property which is subject to a mortgage.

Without lawful excuse

Section 5 of the 1971 Act provides a defence of ‘lawful excuse’ to a charge of criminal damage, in the following situations:

  • At the relevant time, the person believed that consent was given, or
  • If the damage was caused during the protection of the person’s own property, if that property was in immediate need of protection, and that the means taken to protect that property were in fact reasonable.

The damage will be deemed to have been caused without lawful excuse if it does not fall within Section 5.


In order to prove criminal damage, one of two key aspects needs to be present: that the defendant acted intentionally or in a reckless manner.

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For more information on:

  • Intent to endanger life
  • Threat to destroy or damage Property
  • Sentencing