Detailed information on the meaning of “Careless”, “Deliberate”, and “Deliberate and Concealed” in the context of HMRC penalties.

What does HMRC mean by ‘Careless’, ‘Deliberate’, or ‘Deliberate and Concealed’ Mistakes & what are the Penalties?

When assessing culpability for tax non-compliance, HMRC considers whether a taxpayer has been either careless, deliberate, or deliberate and concealed.

  1. Reasonable Care: The error is made despite the taxpayer taking careful measures to ensure accuracy.
  2. Careless: The taxpayer fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in an error, but it is not done deliberately.
  3. Deliberate: The taxpayer intentionally makes a mistake on the return, but does not try to conceal it.
  4. Deliberate and Concealed: The taxpayer not only makes a deliberate error but also attempts to hide it.

Their conclusion on this will have a direct impact on how severely they treat tax offences and can be the difference between a simple fine or criminal prosecution. We’ll explain each in detail below.

Carelessness is obviously the least serious transgression, with deliberate concealment suggesting fraud. The “behaviour-based” penalties surrounding this were introduced in 2009 by the Finance Act 2007[1]Trusted Source – GOV.UK – Finance Act 2009.

What Does HMRC Consider a ‘Careless’ Error?

Company directors are expected to be able to demonstrate ‘reasonable care’ in tax affairs. What exactly constitutes ‘carelessness’ is, of course, not an exact science, and the burden of proof is on HMRC to back up whatever assertion they are making. HMRC’s Compliance Handbook manual[2]Trusted Source – GOV.UK – HMRC Compliance Handbook, makes reference to this when it states: “the onus of proof of careless or deliberate behaviour is on HMRC” and that the standard of proof is on the ‘balance of probabilities’.

When Assessing Carelessness, HMRC take into Account:

  •   How significant error is within the context of the taxpayer’s liability for the year
  •   The taxpayer’s abilities – HMRC would hold a finance director to a higher account than the owner of a hair salon
  •   Supporting evidence – does the client have a health issue or another reason why they have made the mistake.

What are HMRC’s Penalties for Careless Mistakes?

In cases of ‘unprompted disclosure’ HMRC will charge 0% to 30% of lost revenue as a penalty. This rises to 15 to 30% when HMRC has discovered the error themselves and confronted you about it.

What do HMRC Consider a ‘Deliberate’ Mistake?

For obvious reasons, deliberate mistakes are considered significantly more serious by HMRC because they indicate a clear decision to break the law. Deliberate tax mistakes include supplying false information or deliberately withholding information in connection with a return or document. The key point here is that deliberate acts are ones done consciously, although, of course, the burden of proof is on HMRC to verify this.

In recent years, HMRC has significantly toughened its stance on deliberate mistakes, pushing many taxpayers into this category who, previously, might have got away with a careless assessment. During 2012-23, HMRC issued only 5000 deliberate action penalties to British taxpayers, and yet a year later, this figure had risen to almost 15,000.

What are HMRC’s Penalties for Deliberate Mistakes?

Where HMRC finds evidence of fraud, they do not hesitate to impose significant tax penalties.

Deliberate Errors for Errors and Failures to Notify – Penalties range from 30% to 100% of any revenue HMRC may have lost. They will consider reductions where the taxpayer makes an ‘unprompted disclosure’.

Deliberate penalties for late submission of tax returns – Penalties may be up to 100% of the correct tax that should be found in return.

Penalties may increase further if related to ‘offshore tax’ – As HMRC continues to toughen its stance against offshore tax evasion, these penalties can increase by a further 200% when they’re related to assets located in jurisdictions outside the UK.

HMRC’s Approach to Deliberate and Concealed Mistakes

Deliberate and concealed mistakes are those where HMRC finds evidence that someone has either falsified documents, or made other sorts of deliberately false representation to conceal their true tax situation. A simple example of this would be when an individual reports a sum of money in their bank account to be a gift, where, in fact, it is legitimate business income. Another example of this would be when someone creates a false invoice to cover a non-existent stock purchase.

What are HMRC’s Penalties for Deliberate and Concealed Mistakes?

In cases of unprompted disclosure, HMRC will charge 30% to 100% of any lost tax, and where this disclosure had to be prompted, 50% to 100%.

When do HMRC Prosecute

Given the high costs of criminal prosecution, the vast majority of HMRC prosecutions use the Code of Practice 9 (COP9), which are their official guidelines for civil investigation of fraud. Under these guidelines, individuals are given the right to make a complete disclosure of their situation (Contractual Disclosure Facility (CDF)) within 60 days. Signing a CDF means that HMRC will guarantee not to proceed with a criminal prosecution and can result in reduced penalties.

When the CDF is not signed, however (meaning you have not admitted that the failure to pay tax was a result of your deliberate conduct), it may trigger a criminal investigation.

In serious cases, however, where HMRC feel the serious criminal intent is suggested, a criminal investigation may be pursued from the start with no offer of civil measures.

» MORE Read our full article on Accelerated Payment Notices

What may Trigger HMRC to Proceed with Criminal Prosecution?

(1)  Where false or forged documents, statements or accounts are submitted

(2)  Where organised criminal gangs or systematic frauds are suggested

(3)  Where individuals in positions of high responsibility or trust are involved

(4)  Where there is concealment, deliberate deception, conspiracy or corruption

(5)  In cases involving breach of import or export restrictions

(6)  Any case involving money laundering

(7)  Any case involving theft or misuse of HMRC documents

(8)  Where there is a link to, or suspicion of, wider criminality

(9)  VAT ‘Bogus’ registration repayment fraud

(10)  Organised Tax Credit fraud

For free confidential advice on HMRC problems such as non-payment of tax please call 0800 074 6757.


The primary sources for this article are listed below, including the relevant laws and Acts which provide their legal basis.

You can learn more about our standards for producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy here.

  1. Trusted Source – GOV.UK – Finance Act 2009
  2. Trusted Source – GOV.UK – HMRC Compliance Handbook