All businesses have a legal right to claim interest from late-paying customers.
The statutory right to interest and compensation applies to all contracts. Late payments create cashflow problems and expose businesses to the risk that they will not be paid. This briefing covers:
- What rights you have to charge interest.
- How to decide whether or not to claim statutory interest.
- How to calculate how much interest to charge.
- How to claim what you are entitled to.
- The contractual agreement must provide a 'substantial remedy' if the customer pays late.
- The customer cannot impose unfair terms: for example, contractual payments terms are capped at 60 days and interest on late payments must be at least 8%.
- In the absence of any specific payment terms, the statutory right will apply.
1 The right to charge interest
1.1 Every business has a statutory right to charge late-paying business or public sector customers interest. The right does not apply to sales to consumers.
1.2 You can negotiate your own contractual agreement with business customers about late payment interest instead.
1.3 Interest starts being chargeable if the customer has not paid within the agreed credit period (see 4).
2 The rate of interest
2.1 The law gives you the right to charge interest at the Bank of England base rate plus 8%.
- For example, if the base rate is 0.5%, you could charge interest at 8.5%.
2.2 Rates for calculating interest are fixed for six-month periods.
- The base rate on 31 December will be used for debts becoming late between 1 January and 30 June. The rate in force on 30 June will be used from 1 July to 31 December.
- To find out the base rate, visit the Bank of England's Public Enquiries Unit (020 7601 4878).
What difference does it make?
Under the law, company finance directors who made a habit of taking extra credit from suppliers to improve cashflow have had to think again.
There will be less free credit to be had just by paying slowly.
- Depending on the base rate in force, the 'base rate plus 8' formula could mean money 'borrowed' by delaying payment is more expensive than overdraft money from the bank.
Attitudes towards late payment should change for the better.
3 Should you charge interest?
Although the rate of interest is high, the total amount of money involved may only be a few pounds. Think what charging interest and costs might do to your relationships with your customers.
3.1 Consider how customers are likely to react.
- Determine if late payment is limited to a few of your customers, or if most of your customers pay late.
- Ask front-line employees (eg in sales) for their opinions.
3.2 Assess the effectiveness of your credit control system.
- If you are ineffective at collecting money owed to you, customers may strongly object to being asked to pay interest and debt-recovery costs.
- Make sure you are using a credit control system that is appropriate to your business needs.
3.3 Find out what other businesses in your industry are doing.
- Your trade association may be able to provide advice.
- Ask your customers if their other suppliers charge interest on late payments.
3.4 Remember that it is not compulsory to charge interest on late payments or debt-recovery costs.
- You retain the right to define your own terms and conditions.
4 When is a payment late?
Under normal circumstances, you will have agreed with your customer when payment should be made.
4.1 A payment is late if it is made after the last day of the agreed credit period.
- Agreements may be verbal or in writing. Verbal agreements are harder to prove.
4.2 If there is no agreed credit period, the law sets a default period of 30 days.
- You can charge interest 30 days after you delivered the goods or provided the service, or 30 days after you notified the purchaser of the amount of the debt, whichever is the later.
To notify the purchaser of the amount of the debt, you should ideally send an invoice. But any other form of notification would do, including a phone call - though that might be difficult to prove in the event of a dispute.
4.3 Where a standard practice on payment has become established, this is accepted, in the absence of any other agreement, as the credit period.
- For example, if the purchaser usually pays you on the last Friday of the month after the month in which you send your invoice, this is when the credit period will end.
4.4 4 The exact wording of your agreement will determine when interest can start.
5 Calculating the interest
Calculating the interest due is a straightforward, step-by-step process.
5.1 Calculate what the interest would be for a full year, by multiplying the amount owed by the total rate of interest (base rate plus 8%).
- For example, if the debt is £1,000 and the base rate remains at 4.5% from the six month period when the debt became late, then the interest would be £1,000 x 12.5% = £125.
5.2 Calculate the daily interest by dividing the annual interest by 365.
- For example, the daily interest on this £1,000 debt is £125 ÷ 365 = 34p.
5.3 Calculate the interest due by multiplying the daily interest by the number of late days.
- For example, if the £1,000 debt were paid 30 days late, you could charge 34p x 30 = £10.27.
5.4 If there is no specific agreement to indicate otherwise, any part payment will go towards reducing the interest before it starts to be applied to reducing the original debt.
5.5 The amount outstanding changes on a daily basis. Be practical, as payer or payee, about settling the debt.
- For example, agree that if the debt is paid within one week, then no further interest will be charged.
5.6 Your VAT position is unaffected. You charge interest on the gross amount of the debt (including any element of VAT), but you do not pay VAT on this interest.
Nor do you pay VAT on any debt-recovery costs you claim.
The clock ticks on
Claims for interest on late payment do not have to be made straight away.
A supplier has six years in which to make a claim, as long as trading terms were agreed and the customer was duly notified when interest began to accumulate.
- The six-year claims period is the same throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the period is only five years in Scotland.
Businesses may still make claims for interest after they have stopped supplying goods or services to a particular purchaser.
- The only way for purchasers to be sure of avoiding future claims is to pay bills on time.
- Liquidators and receivers acting in connection with a business can also pursue ex-customers for interest on late payments, going back up to six years.
6 How to claim interest
If you decide to start charging interest on late payments, you need to make provision for it as part of your routine credit control system.
6.1 Notify each customer in writing. State that you will charge interest on late payments as you are entitled to do by law.
- Contact habitual late payers to discuss how the system will affect them. Explain that their late payments cost you money.
6.2 Ensure that your customers understand and agree to your payment terms.
- State the agreed payment date on each of your invoices.
- The invoice should clearly state your new terms and conditions, and that you intend to exercise your right to charge interest on late payments.
6.3 Inform customers when interest begins to accumulate. Give the following information:
- The original invoice number.
- What account the bill is for.
- How much is owed.
- The extra amount of interest the customer will owe you each day.
- To whom the payment should be made.
- Payment instructions.
6.4 Present the customer with a final bill once the interest and the original amount that was due have been paid.
- The final bill should specifically mention the number of days that interest has been charged for and the base rate that was used in calculating the interest.
7 What if a customer objects?
Despite the law, your customer may be unwilling to pay interest on late payment - but they cannot 'opt out' of doing so. In the interests of customer relations, try other ways of obtaining your money before considering legal action.
7.1 Make it clear that you would prefer to come to an agreement regarding the debt.
- If you cannot reach agreement with your customer, you can follow several approaches to obtain the money.
7.2 Consider applying pressure by placing this customer on a stop list until the debt has been paid.
7.3 Consider selling or passing the debt (or part of it) to a third party, such as a debt collection agency.
- The purchaser of the debt can use the courts to obtain payment of the debt and the interest.
If you sell or transfer a debt, you must inform your customer in writing that it has been assigned to a third party.
7.4 You may ultimately want to pursue your claim for the original amount and interest through the court.
- Your claim will be helped if you can provide written evidence that you delivered the goods or completed the job, and that the customer was satisfied.
- If you have legal expenses insurance, this should encourage a non-payer to pay up when threatened with legal action.
8 Further help
Further advice on claiming and paying interest on overdue invoices is available from a number of sources.
8.1 Your accountant or financial adviser should have an understanding of the legislation and how it could affect your business.
- The website offers an online interest calculator and you can submit through the site questions on late payment that experts will answer.
8.3 Your local business support organisation or trade association can offer advice.
8.4 If you are a small or medium-sized enterprise with up to 250 employees, your business association - such as the Federation of Small Businesses or the Forum of Private Business - can go to court on your behalf to challenge unfair contract terms.