What is a ‘reasonable excuse’ for tax penalties?

Having a reasonable excuse can be a get-out-of-jail-free card if you are charged a tax penalty. However, there is no statutory definition of the term, and what might constitute a reasonable excuse for one person may not for another. With more individuals and businesses incurring tax penalties due to Covid-related disruptions, HMRC has recently updated its guidance.

The use of a reasonable excuse only removes the penalty – it does not absolve the taxpayer from the tax or any late-payment interest.

Covid-related disruptions

HMRC will usually accept the use of a reasonable excuse for a return or late payment because of the impact of Covid-19. As is always the case with reasonable excuse, the excuse must have existed on or before the date on which the obligation should have been met.

It is also essential that the failure to meet the conditions is rectified without unreasonable delay once the reasonable excuse ends.

For example, if a business is late submitting its quarterly VAT return because the person responsible had to isolate – this should be accepted as reasonable excuse provided the return is submitted as soon as possible after the person returns to work.

What doesn’t count

HMRC’s updated guidance provides some examples of what will not usually amount to a reasonable excuse:

  • Pressure of work;
  • Lack of information; and
  • Lack of a reminder from HMRC.

Lack of funds and reliance on a third party also do not normally count, although there are exceptions. For example, the First-Tier Tribunal held that a taxpayer had a reasonable excuse for the late payment of a capital gains tax liability because the sale proceeds had not been received.


Illness and domestic problems do not count as valid excuses unless very serious. HMRC expects suitable arrangements to be put in place if a person knows in advance that they will be in hospital or convalescing.

Similarly, the illness of a partner or a close relative will only be accepted as an excuse if the situation took up a great deal of time and resources.

HMRC guidance on what to do if you disagree with a tax decision – including reasonable excuse – can be found here.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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