Are you being prosecuted for not paying your TV licence?

We may be able to help…

If you or anyone you know has been or is being prosecuted or threatened with prosecution for not paying their TV licence, we may be able to help.

You can find more general information on this issue via our Frequently Asked Questions below. You may also wish to explore this helpful guide about Single Justice Procedure Notices from the charity Law for Life.

APPEAL is committed to ending the criminalisation of poverty. Ending the use of criminal sanctions for the non payment of the TV licence fee is a key part of this mission. You can read more about our campaign work on this issue here.

Do I need a TV Licence?

Under the Communications Act 2003, it is a criminal offence to install or use a television receiver without a licence. In practice, this means that you need a TV licence to:

  • watch or record programmes as they’re being shown on TV
  • watch or record programmes live on an online TV service (including programmes streamed over the internet and satellite programmes from outside the UK)
  • watch or download BBC programmes on demand (including catch-up TV) on BBC iPlayer without having a TV Licence.

This means that if you do not have a TV licence, you cannot watch anything on the BBC. It does not matter whether it is on your television or through iPlayer, or whether it is being shown live or is an on-demand boxset.

If you do not have a licence, you can watch shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime or other subscription services that are not being streamed live.

You may also watch programmes on All4 or ITVHub, online or on a television set, so long as you are not watching it live: that is, when it is first being broadcast.

What is ‘licensable content’?

“Licensable content” is the term used for programmes that you can only watch once you have paid for a TV Licence.

How much does a TV Licence cost?

Currently, the licence fee costs £157.50. Certain customers experiencing financial difficulties may be able to spread their payments over an extended period of time, making fortnightly or monthly payments, through a programme called the Simple Payment Plan.

Previously, if you were over the age of 75, you could obtain a licence for no cost. However, from 1 August 2020, over-75s will no longer qualify for a free licence, unless in receipt of Pension Credit. Age UK have been campaigning against this change, and you can find out more about their work here.

What happens when an enforcement officer working for TV Licensing calls to the door?

The below is based on individual accounts, TV Licensing Visiting Procedures (the handbook given to all Enforcement Officers) and TV Licensing’s Prosecution Code and Policy.

If you do not have a TV licence, TV Licensing can send an enforcement officer out to your house to ensure you are not watching licensable content. They can still send an officer out to your house even if you have informed them that you do not need a licence because you are not watching licensable content.

The purpose of their visit is to see if you are watching licensable content without a licence and, if so, to gather evidence of your breach of the law. A TV Licensing Enforcement Officer must verbally caution you that anything you say to them may be used in evidence against you in court. If you have not been cautioned, any evidence gathered from that visit may be inadmissible in court.

Enforcement Officers will aim to complete a document called a ‘Record of Interview’. On this document they will fill out:

  • your personal details
  • the type of TV you have (or the type of the device on which you are watching licensable content)
  • the television programme you are watching.

The Enforcement Officer will ask you to sign this Record of Interview. By signing this document, you are acknowledging everything the TV Licensing Officer has written is correct.

You should not sign this document if there are sections which have not yet been filled out. It is not merely a document to acknowledge that TV Licensing has visited your house – if you are prosecuted for TV licence fee evasion, this is the primary piece of evidence that will be used against you. If the Record of Interview says that you were watching licensable content without a licence and you do not believe this to be true, you should not sign it.

The Record of Interview document contains a section at the end which asks whether there is ‘anything else you would like us to know about’. You should ensure that the officer fills out this section to include anything that is relevant to your situation – if you have any health or financial difficulties for example.

The TV Licensing Officer is also likely to offer to sell you a TV licence while they are visiting you. If you want to watch licensable content, then you should use this opportunity. However, it is important to note that even if you buy a licence at this point, TV Licensing can still prosecute you for the offence of TV licence fee evasion. If you do sign up for a TV Licence, you should ensure that you keep up to date with your payments, and inform TV Licensing as soon as possible if you are experiencing any difficulties. If you fail to keep up your payments without informing TV Licensing, they may decide to prosecute you.

What are my rights when dealing with Enforcement Officers?

If a TV Licensing officer calls to your house, you do not have to let them inside. They do have the power to go to the police and get a search warrant to get inside but without a warrant you do not have to allow entry.

You do not have to buy a TV Licence from the person visiting if you only watch programmes that do not require a licence.

What should I make sure the Enforcement Officer knows when they call to my house?

You should tell the officer visiting your house if you have any vulnerabilities that you think are relevant to your case. The officer is required to note this on the Record of Interview document.

Vulnerabilities include circumstances such as:

  • You have been suffering from physical health problems
  • You have been suffering from mental health conditions
  • You have been a victim of domestic abuse
  • You have been suffering from severe financial difficulty

This list does not cover all examples of vulnerability, and if there are any other circumstances you think might be relevant, you should make sure to tell the Enforcement Officer.

If your vulnerabilities are noted on Record of Interview, this may influence TV Licensing’s decision of whether or not to prosecute, although it is not guaranteed.

How do TV Licensing decide who to bring to court?

TV Licensing rely on their Prosecution Code and Prosecution Policy to decide who they should take to court for not paying their TV Licence.

TV Licensing will consider

  1. whether it is in the public interest to prosecute
  2. whether there is sufficient evidence to bring the case (that is, whether they think they will be able to prove the case against you in court).

The Prosecution Policy indicates that the following factors, among others, will be considered when deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute.

Factors making prosecution more likely:

  • You have a previous conviction for non-payment of the licence fee or have previously been warned about not having a licence
  • You had previously told TV Licensing that you did not need a licence when in fact you did
  • A search warrant had to be obtained in order to access your home to inspect whether or not you needed a licence
  • You were using a colour TV when you had only purchased a licence to watch a black and white TV
  • You have publicly stated that you intend to watch TV without a licence and you are publicly encouraging others to do so too (for example, online through social media)

Factors making prosecution less likely:

  • You are considered vulnerable due to personal circumstances (which may include physical or mental ill health, learning difficulties, domestic hostility or abuse, or exceptional and severe financial hardship)
  • You are suffering from significant physical or mental ill health
  • A licence was purchased in a timely fashion after your interview with an Enforcement Officer
  • You did not have a licence because of a genuine mistake or misunderstanding
  • You are under the age of 18
  • You have evidence that it is the landlord’s responsibility to pay the licence
  • The person watching TV without a licence in your home was a genuine visitor

How will I know if TV Licensing wants to take me to court?

The vast majority of TV licensing cases (96.4% in 2018) start off by being processed through a system called the Single Justice Procedure (SJP). In this system, it is possible for your case to be dealt with by not going to court at all.

  1. If TV Licensing decide to prosecute you, you should receive an SJP notice in the post.
  2. This notice will give you the option of pleading guilty or pleading not guilty to the offence.
  3. You can send back your plea online or by post by following the instructions on the letter.

Cases will generally proceed as follows. A Single Magistrate, aided by a ‘legal adviser’, will look at what you have sent back in addition to information sent by TV Licensing (including the Record of Interview) and decide whether or not to convict you of the offence of TV licence evasion. If convicted, this Magistrate will also impose a fine in line with guidelines up to a maximum of £1000, taking into account your financial circumstances if you have provided these.

If you decide to plead not guilty, you can go to court and argue before three Magistrates why you did not break the law by watching licensable content without a licence.

I received a letter saying I have already been convicted and fined, but I didn’t even know TV Licensing had decided to prosecute me – what do I do?

Through our research, we have discovered that in 80% of TV Licensing cases, TV Licensing receives no response from the person to whom they sent the SJP notice.

While it is not possible to know precisely why all these people have not responded, from speaking with individuals in TV Licensing court, we have heard many stories of letters being sent to the wrong address or post routinely going missing in housing estates or blocks of flats. When no response is received by HMCTS, the Single Magistrate will still decide the case, but they will only have the evidence supplied by TV Licensing. This frequently results in the Magistrate finding the defendant guilty.

When you are convicted under the Single Justice Procedure, you receive a notice by post and details of the fine that has been imposed. If you received this letter but did not receive the original SJP notice giving you the option of how you wanted to plead, you should contact the court as soon as possible. The letter outlining the fine amount should provide contact details of the relevant court, but if it does not, you should use the Court and Tribunal Finder to contact your local Magistrates’ Court and explain the situation. As each Magistrates’ Court deals with different matters, it may be the case that your local court is unable to help you. If this is the case, they should be able to direct you as to whom to contact instead.

In order to quash (overturn) the conviction, you have to go to Magistrates’ Court to make what is called a Statutory Declaration. You will be called before the magistrates and asked to go into the witness box. The usher will ask you to read a statement that swears that you did not receive the individual SJP notice and that you were convicted without your knowledge. The magistrates may ask you about your situation and how you did not receive the original notice. They will then decide whether to accept your explanation. If they do, the conviction will be quashed and it will be as if you were never convicted in the first place.

It is then up to TV Licensing whether or not they want to prosecute the case again now that you are aware of the charge against you. They may say that they do not wish to do so, in which case you may go home. If they do decide to continue with the prosecution, you may have to attend a different court on a different day.

What happens in court?

TV Licensing schedules all of its hearings for a particular area on the same day at the same time. You will be asked to come to the morning or afternoon session of the court and will generally be asked to arrive half an hour before the magistrates are scheduled to begin hearing cases. During this waiting period you will give your name to the court usher to let them know you are there. They will usually give you a ‘means form’ where you fill out information about your financial situation in order to assist the magistrates in setting any fine amount you may receive.

There will be a person from TV Licensing there who is known as a ‘Court Presenter’. This is the representative of TV Licensing who is prosecuting the case. Their job in court is to argue on behalf of TV Licensing and present any evidence they have that they believe shows you were watching licensable content without a licence.

The Court Presenter will generally speak to each defendant separately in private before arguing the case in court. We have been unable to observe one of these private meetings but have spoken with women shortly after they finished their conversations. According to them, the Court Presenter goes through the information they have and gives you an idea of what will happen in court. If you have a lawyer with you, you should ensure your lawyer is present during this conversation to advise you on what to say.

The Court Presenter may have a long list of people to speak to so you may have to wait for some time before you are called. Sometimes there are two Court Presenters in court, one having conversations with the defendants waiting outside of court and one in court presenting cases before the Magistrates. It is important to note that neither of these people are your legal representatives. They represent TV Licensing and its interests, not yours.

If you decide to plead guilty, you will be called before the magistrates and the charge against you will be read (that is, that you were watching licensable content without a licence on the relevant date) and you will be asked for your plea.

The Court Presenter may provide additional information to the court to help them in sentencing you. For example, they may provide information about how many times you have been convicted of watching a TV without a licence, or what you said to the Enforcement Officer who came out to your house. They will also usually ask for their ‘prosecution costs’, which means they are asking the Court to order you to pay the costs of taking the case against you (the amount of this is usually £120). The magistrates will then ask you if there is anything you would like them to consider when they are deciding your sentence. You should let them know if you are experiencing any financial, health or other personal difficulties that will affect your ability to pay a fine. They should adjust your fine accordingly.

What if TV Licensing have got it wrong and I was not breaking the law?

If you plead not guilty, you will have the opportunity to explain to the magistrates why you believe TV Licensing has gotten it wrong and that you are innocent. TV Licensing may bring along the Enforcement Officer who called to your house to give evidence as a witness. TV Licensing’s Court Presenter will ask the Officer questions. You will also be given the opportunity to ask questions in order to show the magistrates the full picture of what happened while the Enforcement Officer was at your house. You should bring other evidence (such as receipts from paying for your TV Licence or other records showing you were not watching licensable content) and show this to the magistrates to explain that you were not breaking the law.

If, despite your explanations, the magistrates still find you guilty, TV Licensing can ask you to pay the costs of taking the trial. From our observations in court, if the Enforcement Officer is called, TV Licensing will ask for £255 in costs. If the Enforcement Officer is not called, they will ask for £205. It is up to the Magistrates whether or not they will award the full costs.

Do I have a right to legal advice of legal aid?

In order to be eligible for legal aid (legal representation that is paid for by the state), your case has to be one where it is ‘in the interests of justice’ to grant you legal aid. As TV Licensing offences are generally seen as a particularly low-level offence, which does not involve complex areas of law, and where you are not immediately at risk of going to prison, you are unlikely to qualify for legal aid for your TV Licensing case. You are still allowed to consult with and bring a lawyer with you to court, paid for at your own expense.

What if I cannot afford to pay?

While it can be difficult to discuss financial hardships or personal issues with strangers, it is important that both TV Licensing and the Court are aware of any issues you may be having that could affect your ability to pay for your TV Licence or any fine that you may get in court. It may affect their decision about whether or not to prosecute you at all, or it can be something they would consider when setting a fine amount if you are convicted.

You should tell the Enforcement Officer who calls to your house about any difficulties you may be having and make sure s/he writes this down on the Record of Interview document. You should also be sure to communicate this to the Court Presenter when you have a conversation with them while you are waiting to be called. You should also tell the Magistrates if you are convicted and don’t think you will be able to pay.

If you are struggling to pay your TV Licence or the fine you receive in court, you should contact a debt and budgeting advice charity such as National Debtline, StepChange, the Money Advice Service or Christians Against Poverty.

Remember, if you want to get a TV Licence but are worried about your ability to make the large payment, you should check if you are eligible for the Simple Payment Plan. This would allow you to spread the payment out, making a smaller payment every second week or every month.

What does a TV Licensing conviction mean for me?

The punishment for a TV Licensing conviction is usually a fine, calculated by the Magistrates based on your financial situation.

You must pay this fine to the Court as if you do not, you risk being sent to prison.

This fine goes to the Court, not to TV Licensing, so if you are experiencing difficulties with payment, you should contact the Court, not TV Licensing.

Sometimes, based on your personal circumstances, the magistrates may decide to give you what is known as a conditional discharge. This means that you do not have to pay a fine on the condition that you do not break the law for a set period of time. If you do, your TV Licensing conviction will be taken into account when the hearing for your subsequent offence arises, often resulting in a higher fine.

While a TV Licensing conviction will not appear on regular DBS checks when you are applying for a job for example, it can appear on an enhanced check required for some jobs that require more in-depth vetting.

How do I appeal a TV licence conviction?

HMCTS provide guidance on how to appeal a magistrates’ court conviction or sentence here.

It is important to note that if you pleaded ‘guilty’ to the offence of TV Licence fee evasion in Magistrates’ Court, you can only appeal your sentence. There are limited circumstances where you can appeal if you pleaded ‘guilty’ originally, generally only if your plea was ‘equivocal’, meaning it was unclear at trial whether or not you were in fact pleading guilty or not guilty. If you pleaded ‘not guilty’ you can appeal both your conviction and sentence.

If you want to appeal, you should fill out send out this form to the Magistrates Court where you were convicted and to TV Licensing within 21 days of your conviction.

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