Small businesses: how to chase late payments

For small businesses, customers in arrears are a big headache. Know your rights when chasing late payments.

Financial problems

If all else fails, get the Small Business Commissioner involved
(Image credit: Geber86)

For small businesses, customers in arrears are a big headache for small firms. Know your rights when chasing late payments.

Late-paying big businesses could be fined for persistently failing to settle small contractors' invoices on time. But while the government says it is determined to beef up the powers of the Small Business Commissioner, which can intervene in late-payment disputes, small businesses are also being urged to take a tougher line themselves.

In particular, small businesses have a legal right to charge penalties when customers pay their bills late. While that may feel uncomfortably confrontational, and certainly shouldn't be a default option, hitting late payers in the pocket can be a powerful way to concentrate minds.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

The law is very clear on small businesses' rights. You can claim both interest charges and debt recovery costs if a firm is late settling your bill. "Late" is defined by the payment terms you agreed when you made the sale. However, if you didn't explicitly set a timetable, the law provides a fall-back position. In this case, your payment will be late if your customer does not pay it within 30 days of receiving your invoice, or within 30 days of you delivering the goods or providing the service, if later.

The law also defines what you can charge. "Statutory interest" is the prevailing Bank of England base rate plus eight percentage points, so it currently stands at 8.75%. This is an annual rate, but you have to charge it daily. On a £10,000 debt, for example, the annual interest bill would be £875, which works out at about £2.40 a day. You multiply this sum by the number of days late.

You are also entitled to charge a fixed sum to cover the costs you incur while chasing the payment, not least the cost of your time. This sum varies according to the size of the debt, from £40 for late payments worth less than £1,000, to £100 for bills of £10,000 or more.

To claim these interest charges and costs you'll need to issue a new invoice to your customer detailing what is owed. The customer may choose to accept this invoice, but if not, you may need to take legal action to force it to pay. This sounds daunting, but for claims of less than £100,000 you can use the streamlined County Court system. You can even make your claim online at

Whether or not you choose to go down this road is a judgement call: you know your customer best. And another option is to ask the Small Business Commissioner to get involved; it has an increasingly strong record of forcing late-paying big businesses to pay up.

David Prosser
Business Columnist

David Prosser is a regular MoneyWeek columnist, writing on small business and entrepreneurship, as well as pensions and other forms of tax-efficient savings and investments. David has been a financial journalist for almost 30 years, specialising initially in personal finance, and then in broader business coverage. He has worked for national newspaper groups including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Observer, Express Newspapers and, most recently, The Independent, where he served for more than three years as business editor.