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An arson conviction for a household explosion has been overturned by the High Court of Australia. The High Court of Australia has overturned a decision of the Queensland Court of Appeal which upheld a man’s arson and attempted fraud convictions related to the explosion of his own home.

Household Explosion

The man walked from his backyard to the front of his property when his house exploded. He suffered severe burns. Subsequently, he ran down the road, climbed on his motorbike, which was parked in a nearby car-park, and rode away. Four hours later he appeared at the local police station, wearing the same clothes, and was interviewed by police.

The man was attempting to sell his motorbike and agreed to meet the potential buyer at his property. He left the motorbike in a nearby carpark because he was worried the buyer might takeoff without paying. After the property exploded, the man drove around for a long time, to avoid anyone who might have been perusing him.  He could not find his phone and did not try to call anyone. He did not want to go home to his wife because he did not want to involve her. The next day the man made an insurance claim for his house.

Household Arson

Household Arson Conviction
Household Arson Conviction

Police charged the man with arson and attempting to defraud his insurance company. The man plead not guilty and represented himself at the jury trial. Witnesses gave evidence of another man, who did not match the accused, fleeing the scene immediately after the blast. Crown experts could not determine what caused the explosion or whether fuel was involved. However, scientific evidence showed that there was petrol residue on the accused’s pants and shoes. Consequently, the jury found the accused guilty of both charges.

Arson & Fraud Convictions Appealed

The man appealed his conviction to the Queensland Court of Appeal. His legal representatives argued that the jury’s verdict could not be supported by the evidence because there was an alternate theory which had not been excluded. Namely, that someone else caused the explosion.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. The Court concluded that it was open to the jury to be satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, it was the accused the witnesses had seen running from the property and riding away on his motorbike. This was despite the fact that the accused did not match the descriptions given by some of the witnesses. The Court found that the jury could have, correctly, rejected the possibility that someone else caused the explosion and that an obvious explanation for the petrol found on the accused was that he had been dousing the property in the fuel. The Court of Appeal found that although there was no obvious motive, the evidence suggested the accused had a volatile character and may have decided to blow up the property because he was in a black mood.

The accused appealed the Court of Appeal’s decision to the High Court and was granted special leave.

Conviction for Household Explosion Overturned

In an extraordinary outcome, the High Court unanimously allowed the appeal, quashed the accused’s convictions for arson and attempted fraud and ordered a verdict of acquittal be entered.  The mans arson conviction for his household explosion was reversed. The Court noted that reasons would be published at a later date.

This case is an interesting example of the checks and balances of the Australian judicial system in action. It will be fascinating to read the reasons from the High Court when they are published.

Coughlan v. The Queen – Case B60/2019

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