The other day, I ate at a restaurant; the food was fine, and I got to paying the bill. Their payment system went down. They couldn't accept cards; only cash, and I didn't have the cash on me for the bill. In the end, their payments system was down for about 45 minutes, with several diners being forced to wait around. The staff didn't at any time offer a reassurance that if things weren't fixed in a certain period of time, we could just leave.

But it got me thinking to the legality of things - at what point can you just leave? Is it always technically illegal in the UK to leave without paying the bill? Could the restaurant just force you to wait until close of business if necessary? What if they still hadn't fixed the payment system by then?

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    Since they offered you a means of paying (cash) and there is no legal requirement in the UK to accept card payments, I do think the onus is on you and not the restaurant. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 8:21
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    So, if you don't physically have the cash on you, you can be sued? This seems ludicrous, because people go into restaurants all the time without the cash on them to pay the bill, fully expecting to pay by card!
    – Jez
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 8:50
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    No. You had the reasonable expectation that they would accept a card payment, so they couldn't sue you over it. Should a similar situation go to court, they'd look at the actions of each party in attempting to resolve it. If the restaurant had been unreasonable, i.e. demanding cash that you didn't have without giving you the opportunity to go and get cash (i.e. from an ATM), then the court would likely dismiss the restaurant's claim. Conversely, if you just walked off without trying to resolve matters, you probably would be found at fault. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 9:12
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    Was there an ATM nearby? The usual approach here is to go to the ATM instead, get cash and pay.
    – Mast
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 16:21
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    It doesn't answer your question but if you're in this situation again, be aware that credit card processing networks have procedures for offline payments (imprint readers, manual entry, etc). A payment system being down shouldn't stop them from settling your bill in a timely manner. If your waiter doesn't know how to process a payment like that, ask a manager. Most processing networks require employees to be trained in these backup processes.
    – bta
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 23:51

7 Answers 7


at what point can you just leave? Is it always technically illegal in the UK to leave without paying the bill?

Probably depends on what you mean with just leaving. If just leaving translates I haven't paid and I won't pay (because of the hassle with the card) then that's probably Making Off Without Payment, section 3 Theft Act 1978 (Thanks @bdsl).

 Could the restaurant just force you to wait until close of business if necessary? What if they still hadn't fixed the payment system by then?

I don't think a restaurant can physically detain you. Not even the 45 min you have been waiting. But if you leave without paying and without an agreement with them how & when to pay they can of course call the police because again that looks very much like making off without payment.

According to your post, they did provide a payment system (cash) which was working all the time and that moreover has the special status of being legal tender.

if you don't physically have the cash on you, you can be sued?

You can be sued if you don't pay your bill (assuming the bill itself is correct) when it's due. In order to avoid endless hassle of the "I tried to pay via x, but they wouldn't accept this." type, legal tender defines ways of payment of a debt that the creditor/seller must accept.
In many legislations, cash in the local currency provides such a fallback if other payment methods fail. Note that cash payment is very robust against internet failure, broken devices and power

The UK (+ US) meaning of legal tender is that the restaurant must accept this means of settling the debt (at this time, the food is already eaten but not payed) - but they don't have to accept any other means of payment. (Note that e.g. for the EUR-countries there is at least a recommendation to make acceptance of legal tender mandatory also in retail, which includes simultaneous exchange food vs. payment).
The 2nd important implication of this is that any argumentation along the lines that no reasonable means of payment were available would be very weak.

You are not required to have sufficient cash with you to pay your bill if you can reasonably assume that some other way of payment will be acceptable to the restaurant.
I see that like a spare wheel for a car: if you have a flat tire (card doesn't work) having a spare wheel (cash) allows you to deal with the issue with less hassle than if you don't: change your wheel vs. having to get your car brought to a workshop and wait until they put on a new tire (pay cash instead of waiting for the card to work again or a tedious hunt for another payment method).

I'd like to point out that card doesn't work and not sufficient cash at hand (or forgotten purse) is something that happens quite often in general (rarely for any given transaction, but we have lots of transactions). I'd expect a restaurant or a gas station to be experienced in dealing with that.

In any case, there are several possibilities to resolve the issue short of "just leaving":

The key to all this is communication: talk to the restaurant to find a way to resolve the issue. Reassure them that you're not trying to use the opportunity to defraud them - that's what they are afraid of in this situation.

  • "Where can I find an ATM?"

    • Possibly offering a deposit: "And would you mind looking after my bag [phone] until I'm back?"
    • Possibly showing them your ID card (or similar, if you have any) so they have your address: remember that so far you are an anonymous customer for them: which means that suing you for the money would be somewhere between too expensive and impossible.
    • If you are a group, it should be sufficient if only one of you leaves in search of cash.
  • Credit cards can be charged in a total offline way (MOTO = mail order/telephone order) where the credit card data is entered manually by the seller: the restaurant may be able to charge your credit card if fill in a paper credit card payment form.

  • They may accept settlement via other payment systems:

    • paypal & Co.
    • wire the money via your online banking account (even if that doesn't give an instantaneous transfer, ask them if that's OK with them if you show/forward them the "transfer accepted message" for now)
    • allow them to withdraw the money from your account via direct debit or something similar
      I'd not expect a restaurant to accept this possibility as they're probably not familiar with it and it means a lot of hassle for them with their bank to get listed to receive money that way.
    • if you are in a region where cheques are still in regular use, that may be a solution as well.
  • Restaurants like any other business can write invoices. They usually don't like this because their risk of having costly trouble to get the money is high.
    While your printout bill is technically an invoice already, it can be turned into an invoice (+ copy for them) giving your name + address and specifying how and when you'll pay. Which would keep track of how you (pl. = you + restaurant) decided to settle the bill under the peculiar circumstances. This works even in case of e.g. a power outage that prevents you from getting cash from an ATM in the neighborhood.

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    The UK does not have mandatory ID cards so it’s quite reasonable that a person may not have any proof of address with them.
    – Sarriesfan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 16:42
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    @Sarriesfan: good point, qualified the sentence. But that doesn't make the situation much more unusual as that difficulty also arises in "ID countries" when someone finds out after refueling their car that they left their purse at home (which at least in Germany is a suffiently common scenario that there are occasional newspaper articles or blog posts or forum questions dealing with it).
    – cbeleites
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 16:47
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    Do you mean legal currency? Legal tender only applies to debts.
    – Notts90
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 17:58
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    @Notts90: I know that legal tender applies to debts only (UK + US, but e.g. in Germany, AFAIK a sales contract creates obligations of the "debt" type for simultaneous exchange). But: the restaurant has already fulfilled their part of the sales contract, that fact is not contested and there's no way the purchaser can return the eaten goods/provided service in anything like unused condition (or pretty much at all). So we don't have a simultaneous exchange of goods/service vs. money: the goods/service have been received, the payment not. Which is why I think there is a debt.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 20:24
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    Intention to not pay isn't fraud - that requires deceiving someone. It's likely to be the offence of Making Off Without Payment, section 3 Theft Act 1978 legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1978/31
    – bdsl
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 12:06

It is illegal for you to take a meal and intend to not pay.

You have a reasonable expectation of using a credit card if they normally take it, The situation of finding out the machine is down isn't, by itself, intent to not pay. So if they call the police, and while you're still in the restaurant, accuse you of refusing to pay -- the police certainly will not arrest you.

However, "intent to pay" has a proof of the pudding.

The proof of the pudding is that you ultimately did pay.

The problem with situations like this is a lot of people "think financially in real-time" and do not recognize past or future in their thinking. In their logic, the moment they walk out the restaurant without paying, the meal is in the past, forgotten, and irrelevant. In their logic, they have escaped the restaurant bill forever.

That is wishful thinking. The rest of the world thinks in accrual. You accrued a debt to the restaurant when you ordered the meal. You need to pay reasonably soon. At the end of the meal is certainly preferred; however within 48 hours is also acceptable.

The upshot is, it's a foot race between "you getting back to the reastaurant to settle the bill" and "them calling the police on you".

So kicking that can down the road day by day for a week, on rationalization after rationalization, is definitely not the thing to do.

It's somewhat a different matter if you are well known to staff/owner as a regular, and come by on a regular interval. My local haunt had a problem ringing me up on a Wednesday visit, so they said to catch them next Wednesday.

Once, a police officer called me and said, in as many words, "Do you own this car? You might want to go back to the Shell Station at 33rd and Main, and settle your bill". They had me on security camera doing a drive-off, and the officer correctly guessed it was a plain error. If I had ignored the situation for several days, I'm sure he would have stopped by to give me a free ride to jail.

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    Intent to pay is also demonstrated by providing your contact details and the promise to pay later. Even if there is no technical issue with payment and you simply forgot your wallet or whatever, there was no intent and so no crime. If instead you snuck out the back door then the intent is clear and you are committing a crime.
    – trapper
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 8:50
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    @trapper Absolutely. At the end of the day, the officer is going to look at the preponderance of the evidence in front of him and make an educated guess as to whether you're a runner. Leaving your details helps. Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 14:52
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    @trapper : what if they refuse to take my contact details, refuse my offers that I go for an ATM and return, and they insist I stay until they have the system fixed, which they tell every time I ask that it will only take a couple more minutes, but in reality I've been there for hours and they've been giving me that same answer? With no proof, in front of the police it will be my word versus their word, and they might just say I refused to pay.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 6:53
  • It's not going to take the police long to figure out who is lying when the payment machine still isn't working. Then the worker prob ends up arrested for the false police report.
    – trapper
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 7:11
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    @vsz Also I gotta add, when your hypotheticals start involving people lying to the police anything could happen really.
    – trapper
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 7:15

If I fill my car with diesel and suddenly realise I've left my wallet at home, the attendant will take a note of my car registration, which will be all over cctv anyway, along with my face. I'll promise to come back and pay within a reasonable amount of time that is agreed. If I fail to honour the agreement they will call the police and report it as theft.

I'd have an expectation that a restaurant would be capable of a similar procedure.

Which party is to blame for the inability to pay doesn't seem relevant to me. Either a payment can be made or it can't. If it can't, come to an arrangement that both parties are happy with and follow through.

All this talk of suing or being forced to wait, seems like overkill for a very simple situation that is easily solved if both parties are to be being reasonable

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    If I were you, I'd formalize this with a handwritten IOU to the station. This way there is question of when you made the promise to pay, how much you promised to pay, and by what time you would agree to make the payment.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 1:01
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    @grovkin I've actually been in this situation twice. On both occasions the station had a very simple form (on carbon paper) to hand to cover this exact scenario. From chatting with the attendant it seems a busy petrol station will experience this about once a week. On that basis I extrapolate people probably make the same mistake at restaurants with similar frequency, so surely there must be some kind of procedure
    – Darren H
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 7:12
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    @DarrenH In the US, they do have a procedure for this - prepayment.
    – emory
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 15:28
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    @emory that sounds really inconvenient if you don't know in advance exactly how much you are spending, to counter a problem that happens relatively rarely. It's certainly a procedure but I don't agree that it's a good one
    – Darren H
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 15:31
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    @DarrenH In practice, it is more convenient. I just swipe my card and pump. If I was paying with cash I would just give the attendant some money (e.g., $10) and pump $10 worth. Regardless of whether it is more convenient or not, they all do it - so I do not have the option of going to the station that does not insist on prepayment.
    – emory
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 16:24

They can’t hold you there for any period of time, as that would be false imprisonment. You have a legal obligation to pay the bill; however, there is no contract about when your payment is due.

You can leave at any time without paying, so long as you have the intention to pay. You can leave your contact details so there is proof of your intent to pay later.

  • I think "false imprisonment" means being incarcerated (so, by the police) on false charges, right? This seems more akin to kidnapping than false arrest, at least to me.
    – MPW
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 21:06
  • They probably missed the sign that says, payment is due upon services rendered.
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 21:56
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    @MPW false imprisonment is correct. Kidnapping requires you to forcibly move someone to a different location. False imprisonment can be committed by anyone, for example a staff member blocking a doorway in a restaurant so you can't leave.
    – flexi
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 22:23
  • Looks like my notion of false imprisonment was wrong. I stand corrected, @flexi . +1 for you.
    – MPW
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 1:28
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    @Will : indeed, it's unlikely police will accept a "citizen's arrest" for not paying, especially if the customer indicated willingness to pay and just didn't have the correct means. Restraining a violent customer who poses a danger to bystanders, however, will typically not be "false imprisonment" if reasonable procedures are followed (e.g. no more excessive force than strictly necessary, calling the police and only holding the customer until police arrives, etc.)
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 6:56

Walking away without paying comes under three possible criminal acts:

  • The Theft Act 1968: defines crimes related to "dishonestly appropriating property belonging to another with intention to permanently deprive the other of it’". ("Appropriating" basically means treating the objects as if one was the owner, so taking it to keep or to sell, etc). This is the basic definition of theft in English law.
  • The Theft Act 1978: defines the crime of making off without payment
  • The Fraud Act 2006: defines crimes related to obtaining goods and services dishonestly by deception, or creating gains and losses (for oneself or other people) by dishonest false statements, etc.

In your case, there is initially no dishonesty. The person visited and ate, and clearly intended to pay. After eating, they queued up and waited to pay.

If they do not at any time act dishonestly (by giving a false address or details, or something else dishonest), then they cannot be guilty of an offence under either the Theft Act 1968 or the Fraud Act 2006, full stop.

(Note that the law is quite exacting here. For example, even if they impulsively decided after eating, to dishonestly evade payment, because of the payment issues, technically the meal and services they already enjoyed, were not obtained by any dishonesty or deception, or with any intent to evade payment!)

That leaves the Theft Act 1978. Section 3 defines the offence of "Making off without payment". Cutting out irrelevant clauses, it says that the offence involves "a person who, knowing that payment on the spot for any goods supplied or service done is required or expected from him, dishonestly makes off without having paid as required or expected and with intent to avoid payment of the amount due".

That means, it is only a crime if (1) done in a dishonest manner, and (2) the aim was to avoid payment.

So for example, leaving your correct details, or even leaving no details but being able to persuade a court that you did intend to return and pay the amount, or even disputing the amount in an honest manner but giving them enough details to sue you ("I don't think you deserve payment because of the delay, but sue me if you disagree. Here is my address"), would all be enough to stop it being a crime.

Wikipedia confirms that this was the way the courts see it, as well: "In R v Allen, the House of Lords said that, in order for the offence to be committed, there must be "an intention to permanently deprive" by making off, and that a mere "intention to defer" payment is not sufficient. In theory, a person could eat a meal at a restaurant, not pay, but leave his name and address in order for the restaurant to start civil recovery procedures against him - as long as the details were correct, and he did intend to pay at some point in the future (by way of civil recovery) then no offence under Section 3 would be committed."

As for forcing you to stay, in English law a private citizen can only detain another person against their will, in very limited circumstances. Of which this wouldn't be one, unless they had "reasonable grounds" to believe a crime was being/had been committed, and the action was necessary. This moves into the area of citizens arrest, right to apprehend, false imprisonment, (un)lawful detention, assault (physical contact), affray and other similar crimes (causing fear of harm in another). They would be at great risk of those, and would have to prove they were not culpable, and you would have the right to resist or use reasonable force if needed, to escape them, if you acted honestly, had an honest belief they were acting unlawfully, or your response was "reasonable". But it's hard to cover that aspect in depth because it's so deeply tied into exactly who did what, and who believed what, and on what basis, and how reasonably.


The merchant can not hold you indefinitely (legally or practically). That being said, you must ask the merchant to provide you with a non-electronic payment method that is mutually agreeable / possible.

The merchant's payment system does comprise a credit card system. A modern payment system comprises electronic and non-electronic means of payment: the number of the card can be recorded (a carbon-copy impression of the card was the standard procedure in the early 1980s prior to electronic payment) and an authorized amount can be signed for by the customer.

If I were the merchant, I would simply verify the card over the telephone and confirm the identity of the customer with an ID. A 5 minute detention of the customer is unreasonable: it is the duty of the merchant to provide for a backup in the event the electronic system is inoperative and provide a procedure for the customer to follow that does not require a potentially indefinite wait / detention. Having a manual procedure in the event of electronic failure is in my interest and ensuring good customer service.

If I were the customer, I would first ask what is the process procedure and attempt to follow it if it does not require detention / waiting. In the absence of procedure I would leave an IOU (and photograph it with my smartphone) such that either the merchant agrees to or would pass the "sniff test" when examined, by authorities. IMHO, The IOU must clearly signal intent to pay and provide a degree of financial accountability (i.e. credit card number + authorization for the charge): preferably with the agreement of the merchant in the form of the merchant writing the IOU. A partial payment of cash in addition to the IOU could also serve as evidence of proper behavior.

In the end, the authorities would rather the customer-merchant work out a mutually acceptable arrangement and not involve the authorities.

  • I saw a carbon-copy card impression just a few years ago too. Might still be a thing during power outages.
    – user541686
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 9:54
  • I wouldn't provide a credit card number if the payment system is down. CC numbers, and especially the 3 digit security codes, are confidential and need to be handled in the proper way for security. That normally means entering them only into payment systems designed to handle credit card numbers, and avoiding recording them in any other place. Business that deal with credit card numbers are supposed to follow the detailed requirements of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, aka PCI-DSS.
    – bdsl
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 19:15
  • I would provide my contact details instead so that the restaurant could contact me later if necessary to demand payment.
    – bdsl
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 19:18

Leaving contact details and demanding that an invoice will be sent should count as a reasonable intent to settle the billed amount.

In gastronomy, in case one is a regular guest, it is not that uncommon to have debts accumulated by consume paid later (even if this is far more common for beverages).

In such an exceptional situation, where eg. a sign claims CC would be accepted, while this payment gateway is temporarily not available, it should be possible to leave contact information and sign them a certificate of debt, to be payed as soon as technically or personally possible (when traveling, an invoice might be the only way).

In offline situations, one can pay with a signature... all "promissory notes", including bank notes and other signed certificates of debt, are generally a payment promise, often mistaken for "money" (BoE even confirmed that once). The only difference is, that banks are permitted to issue these without the declaration of an ultimatum.

Therefore, after making a reasonable payment promise, one is free to leave the venue. Demanding a bill, which states the outstanding amount, is certainly advised.

Even when "paying" with CC, one does not instantly pay, but one makes a debt contract with the one party and a payment promise to the other party... even if this may meanwhile be fulfilled close to realtime.

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