I don't have a TV license, I use Netflix and Amazon Prime. In the UK you have to state that you don't have a TV license and sign a declaration to that effect every 2 years (unless you then get a license).

When signing my declaration there was a note stating that they may come round and check if I need a license, I would assume by coming into my house and looking at the back of my TV. If they did this they would find no antenna plugged in and then be on there way. However do they have the legal right to perform this check? Do I have to let them in, and if I don't, what is the consequence? It feels like the check is assuming I'm guilty and that I would have to prove my innocence - but that goes against one of the fundamental principles of our legal system.

My question is: does the TV licensing system operate under the innocent until proven guilty modus operandi and if not why not?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Pat W.
    Aug 2 '20 at 14:07

The system operates on "innocent until proven guilty"

If you watch or record live television or you download or watch programmes on BBC iPlayer (live, catch up, or on demand), you must have a TV licence.

You do not have to let TV Licensing officers into your home unless they have a warrant, per Section 366 of the Communications Act 2003. They will check the TV and any other devices (such as a laptop, phone, etc.) that are capable of watching or recording live television as well as downloading or watching programmes on BBC iPlayer, and that will form part of the evidence in deciding whether to charge you with a criminal offence (Section 363 of the Act) or not.

If charged with an offence, you would go before a magistrate court and plead your case like any other criminal matter. Therefore, the system still operates on "innocent until proven guilty" because you will not acquire a criminal record unless the court is satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that you committed the relevant offence.

  • 4
    Would it be a criminal offence? Really??
    – Zeus
    Jul 28 '20 at 3:33
  • 4
    @Zeus if TV Licensing chose to prosecute (in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man) yes. In Scotland the rules are different, and in Guernsey and Jersey, the rules are wildly different (but I think you can end up with a criminal record in all jurisdictions, possibly excluding Jersey).
    – Tim
    Jul 28 '20 at 8:15
  • 15
    Yes @Zeus Section 363 of the Communications Act 2003 criminalises watching live TV or any BBC programmes without a licence.
    – Matthew
    Jul 28 '20 at 8:18
  • 2
    @zeus Yes, although the government is currently considering plans to decriminalize it.
    – JBentley
    Jul 28 '20 at 9:54
  • 1
    @user I think that can be posted as a new question. Feel free to add a link to this question/answer for bonus context.
    – Mast
    Jul 30 '20 at 13:23

Sorry Matthew, that is wrong.

But let's start with the OP's statement

In the UK you have to state that you don't have a TV license and sign a declaration to that effect every 2 years (unless you then get a license).

You do not have to state this at all. You are under NO legal obligation to reply to TVLA's letters. All that will happen is they will keep sending them to you.

You do not have to let them in. You don't have to answer the door. You can open the door and say "go away". Under NO circumstances sign anything, especially not the "confirmation of visit" form; too often this is folded in half, and what you are really signing - hidden by the fold - is an admission that you have been watching TV without a licence. There is also anecdotal evidence of individuals signing one form and their signature appearing on an admission document.

You do NOT need a licence if you own a device capable of watching/recording live television. You only need a licence if you a) watch LIVE television as it is broadcast, and/or b) use BBC iPlayer to view ANY BBC content, even on catch-up.

You do not need a licence to watch 4more, ITVHu, Prime, Netflix, etc... unless it is broadcast live.

  1. TVLA can only enter with a warrant. If this happens, film their visit. They can look at whatever they want. If you do not watch broadcast TV, ensure your devices are not plugged into an antenna. If they ask you to pick up the antenna lead, do NOT do this. Do not plug it in to "see if it reaches". They are looking for evidence.

  2. If you are charged, it will go in front of a magistrate. However, if you have admitted to watching TV without a licence (ie signed something), then you are pretty much up the creek.

  3. Remember that TVLA staff are paid on a commission basis... think about that, they are incentivised to bring cases to court.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Pat W.
    Aug 2 '20 at 14:05

In legal terms, the "innocent until proven guilty" principle still holds. However, the dirty tactics utilised by licensing officers try all sorts of underhand tricks to disregard "innocent until proven guilty". The general advice is that you should not engage with such licensing officers in any way, unless they actually have a search warrant (very rare). In particular, if a licensing officer knocks on your door or attempts to gain entry to your property, you should not let them in, and you should not sign any forms.

A more comprehensive guide (including details of some of the underhand tricks licensing officers may try on you) can be found at:


Questions 11 & 12 in that guide are particularly relevant here:

11. What happens if I inform TV Licensing that my property doesn't need a TV licence?

It is pointless telling TV Licensing that your property doesn't need a TV licence, as it won't believe you. TV Licensing will acknowledge your claim that no TV licence is needed, but will say that it might send a goon around to check anyway. The threatograms will temporarily stop, but experience tells us that TV Licensing will be hassling you again within the space of a year.

A legally-licence-free person is under no obligation at all to TV Licensing. They should not feel coerced into doing TV Licensing's work for it. Do not submit to TV Licensing's sordid, legally baseless suspicions.

12. What should I do if a TV Licensing goon visits my property?

TV Licensing goons do not have the automatic right of access to any property. Our advice to the legally-licence-free is to immediately identify any unexpected callers to their property and close the door on those from TV Licensing. Remember, the legally-licence-free are under no obligation at all to TV Licensing.

Do not make the mistake of engaging with a TV Licensing goon (on unidentified stranger) on the doorstep. TV Licensing goons earn commission by selling TV licences and nabbing evaders, which can skew their interpretation of the truth.

Dishonest TV Licensing goons are prone to twisting innocent comments like "Yes, I have a TV set that I only use for DVDs" into incriminating comments like "The occupier admitted watching TV". If a TV Licensing goon calls, by far the safest option is to say nothing and close the door.

If you have a camera or smartphone we recommend filming any TV Licensing goon that visits your property. This creates an accurate record of the encounter in case the goon runs away and fabricates a different story. Remember that TV Licensing goons should never be trusted.

  • 9
    "It is pointless telling TV Licensing that your property doesn't need a TV licence, as it won't believe you." Not true. The house I live in has never had a TV set in it since it was first built (nearly 50 years ago). I reply to the email enquiries (which are not "within the space of a year" but follow the schedule stated in the enquiries) and in more than 30 years I have never had a knock on the door from a "goon" or from any TVL employees at all. Of course if you ignore their initial inquiries, they will make the natural assumption that you are trying to hide something and chase it up.
    – alephzero
    Jul 28 '20 at 3:23
  • 2
    ... Anecdotally, they were more persistent and less well behaved 10 or 20 years ago than they are now. A work colleague once called the police because someone was behaving suspiciously outside the property - and the person turned out to be a TVL inspector trying to look through the windows!
    – alephzero
    Jul 28 '20 at 3:26
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    There is some potentially useful information here, but this doesn't really provide a law-based answer to the question. Some relevant citations from legislation and/or cases would be helpful, rather than relying solely on a blog.
    – JBentley
    Jul 28 '20 at 10:11
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    @JBentley My comment sought to provide information on the relation between the de jure situation and de facto behaviours. The OP's question is not about whether he/she is acting legally, but where the evidential onus is situated. Hence, my answer is useful becuase it clarifies that "innocent until proven guilty" still applies, despite BBC's representatives trying to intimidate people into believing otherwise. The 'blog I cite is well researched, and makes reference to legal precedents, cases, and legislation (and it is not the only source I have consulted).
    – anon
    Jul 28 '20 at 23:55
  • 1
    I would concur with @JBentley - the blog material ventures fairly close to 'rant' territory in places. Not that I personally doubt what you or the blog are saying, but the 'law' answer would be best referenced with examples of what you are saying: "However, the dirty tactics utilised by licensing officers try all sorts of underhand tricks" - is quite emotive language and this would need substantiated from proper sources, for example if such a thing had been established in court. If the blog is not the only source you have consulted, your answer should cite the other sources. :)
    – DrDee
    Aug 8 '20 at 17:59

It is currently a criminal offence, and as such the same procedures (including "innocent until proved guilty") apply as with any other criminal offence.

If entry to premises is required to obtain evidence, the court can issue a warrant.

However the reality of the situation is that almost all the defendants who are summoned to court (about 120,000 per year) plead guilty without attending court, and the average length of the court proceedings is less than two minutes.

It might be more worrying that the UK government is considering decriminalizing this, which would result in a lower standard of proof and poorer appeal procedures, and also move the debt collection process from court officials to civil bailiffs who may be less concerned about "following procedures" than earning profits from successful debt collection.

  • 2
    Interesting point here -- it had not occurred to me that the lower evidential requirements for civil cases might militate against the defendant. But would it make a difference in practice? I struggle to imagine a situation where one can "prove" licence evasion "on the balance of probabilities" and yet not "beyond reasonable doubt". The only possibility that occurs to me is if the resident posts comments online talking about a programme in detail as it is being broadcast live on TV for the 1st time and the IP address for the posting corresponds to his/her home address.
    – anon
    Jul 29 '20 at 0:02
  • @anon I imagine something along the lines of it being difficult to prove a negative would militate against the defendant. The evidential threshold would naturally be lower, so a preponderance of circumstancial evidence would potentially be enough to tip the scales in favour of TV Licensing.
    – Matthew
    Jul 29 '20 at 15:00

Officers get to be tricky

The problem here is you're expecting the TV enforcement officers to deal fairly and not pull dirty tricks or be manipulative.

There's no legal obligation for them to do that, just as there's no legal obligation for police detectives to not trick you.

There are limits to what you can do, but this is where we get into the difference between law theory and law practice. For instance the folded-over document that you sign without realizing what it says. On one hand, the judge sees a deadlocked squabble over what was done, between a suspect and an enforcement officer. On the other hand the judge sees a document plainly signed by the defendant. The document will tend to prevail. The entire basis of contract law is that a signed document has weight, and it follows that everyone who signs a document has a duty to know what they're signing. It wouldn't do for every signer who has remorse to simply claim to be misled! So the "tricked" argument is unlikely to go far.

Know your rights.

When an officer asks for permission to search your home, that is because they do not have the right to search. When police have a right to search, they don't ask. So the very fact they are asking means you can say no. And should: It does not benefit you in any way whatsoever to allow the search, it can only go against you.

They may say you can't refuse, and then ask again for permission; still say you do not consent. If they had a right, they wouldn't be asking.

Likewise you do not have any obligation to answer any question, except in certain rare instances. Again, cooperation does nothing for you and can only possibly hurt you.

When an officer is manipulative, to try to make you "FEEL" a particular way, that is quite on purpose, for the sole purpose of getting you to do something that is not in your own best interest. Of course, the emotional impulse to act is very high; that's the whole point of manipulation. That is why you must be absolutely scrupulous when dealing with authorities to follow the "rules of engagement" as advised by civil rights groups or by your lawyer.

Part of the manipulation is to tempt you into saying something "smart" - you know that urge - but again that cannot help you and can only hurt.

Protecting yourself from such manipulation is exactly why you engage a lawyer for a serious matter. For TV goons, just don't speak to them at all.

  • It's a criminal proceeding. The document doesn't win automatically against a jury.
    – Joshua
    Jul 30 '20 at 18:54
  • @Joshua Edited, but ... do you guys really seat a jury for a TV goon case? Seems like that would be a rich environment for jury nullification. Jul 30 '20 at 19:05
  • I double-checked this. The defendant has the right to insist on one. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juries_in_England_and_Wales . The Wikipedia article has a strong citation but it's offline so I can't link it.
    – Joshua
    Jul 31 '20 at 15:14

Start with the facts as published: TV Licensing website

Which says:

The law says you need to be covered by a TV Licence to:

watch or record programmes as they’re being shown on TV, on any channel
watch or stream programmes live on an online TV service (such as ITV Hub, All 4, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV, Sky Go, etc.)
download or watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer.

So whether or not an antenna is connected is irrelevant. You stream data from Amazon and Amazon streams live broadcasts so you are under the catchment for licensing. While the law says if you "do", the common usage and interpretation is that if you "can" then you probably "do" even if you are not doing it at the moment the inspectors call. This moves the onus moves back on to you to show that you don't which is why the assumption of innocence is difficult to maintain unless it is obvious that you don't because you can't.

The Law is on your side and the assumption of innocence prevails, however, the reality is that if you are brought to court, it will be much easier for the prosecution to prove that you probably do then for you to prove that you absolutely don't.

  • You are wholly wrong. Read you own quote from TVLA: the key word is "live". If you watch pre-recorded material (blu-ray, dvd, video) you do NOT need a licence. If you watch streamed material, unless it is being streamed Live, you do NOT need a licence. If you watch broadcast TV, or live streamed material, you need a licence. You can stream or use catchup whatever you want, from where ever you want; Netflix, ITVHub, Amazon - unless it is live streamed you do not need a licence. The sole exception is BBC iPlayer. Any content viewed from that platform requires a licence.
    – Alan Lewis
    Aug 15 '20 at 21:11
  • Furthermore. your understanding of the legal system is flawed. There is no "the common usage and interpretation is that if you "can" then you probably "do".To take it to an extreme, every single driver in this country could be convicted for drink driving, speeding, etc on the basis that one "can". Magistrates are not daft; they are guided by a Clerk - a trained solicitor - they are concious that any sentence is subject to review, and that a finding of guilt on the basis "the defendant owned a TV, could watch TV, therefore probably did" would be overturned on an appeal.
    – Alan Lewis
    Aug 15 '20 at 21:17
  • The evidential burden of proof does not shift from prosecution to defendant, that is a fundamental tenet of UK law. The prosecution has to prove guilt, and in a criminal case it is "beyond reasonable doubt", not "probably does". Why,. because it is impossible to prove a negative. How do you show you do not watch TV? You can't. Now an earlier poster talked about signed documents. This is my point in my first post. Do NOT sign anything, regardless what TVLA claim it is; it is highly likely the bottom 1/2 of a folded document, top of which is an admission of watching TV without a licence
    – Alan Lewis
    Aug 15 '20 at 21:21
  • 1) If your device "can" receive live broadcast you need a license. Amazon et. al. "can" show live broadcasts, so technically, you need a license. 2) It is called "common" law for a reason. 3) If you have a normal TV you need a license. Nobody has to prove that that you watched it. To avoid prosecution you need to prove not that you didn't, but that you couldn't, have watched it. As you said, Magistrates are not daft. If they simply dismissed everybody who said "wasn't me guv", they wouldn't be needed.
    – Paul Smith
    Aug 17 '20 at 21:19
  • It is easier to argue that a streaming service is not a "normal" TV and therefore that the "normal" rules might not apply. That would get you some leeway, but you would still be relying on a certain amount of good luck.If you were watching on a normal TV via a streaming service then I wouldn't give much for your odds. Watching on a laptop and being generally cooperative, you would probably have a reasonable chance of getting away with it.
    – Paul Smith
    Aug 17 '20 at 21:27

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