New guidelines: penalties up to £1million for the underage sale of knives

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New guidelines: penalties up to £1million for the underage sale of knives

Retailers of any size, from large multi-million pound organisations down to individual shop owners, will have to take heed of new sentencing guidelines coming into force on 1 April 2023, which relate to those convicted of selling knives to children in England and Wales.

The two guidelines, which can be found here, apply to organisations and individuals who fail to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent the sale of knives to under 18s, either in-store or online.

The prosecution of underage sales of knives falls to Trading Standards teams within local authorities. For the first time magistrates’ courts will use these specific guidelines, which aim is to ensure that courts across the country take a consistent approach to sentencing these types of offences.

The Sentencing Council have published figures relating to fines imposed under the present sentencing regime.

For individuals – between 2017 and 2021, fines ranged from £34 up to £6,000, with an average of £383.

For companies – during the same period, fines ranged from £269 to £200,000, with an average of £2,600 (after reductions for guilty pleas have been applied). 99% of all companies prosecuted received a fine (rather than a discharge).

The figures demonstrate that the risk of enforcement and significant fines is understandably much higher for organisations. A single online test-purchasing operation led by National Trading Standards concluded in 2021 with a total of 17 convictions and fines totalling £179,755.

Under the new regime, organisations face a range of fines from £500 to £1 million, with fines linked to turnover to make penalties proportionate to the size of organisation (organisations cannot be sentenced to custody or community orders). Individuals face a range of non-custodial sentences, from a discharge to a high-level community order or fine.

It is vital that organisations and individuals who sell knives as part of their businesses are familiar with the law governing their sale, a brief summary of which is outlined below.

The Law

It is an offence for any person to sell the following bladed articles to someone under the age of 18:

  • knife, knife blade or razor blade
  • axe
  • other article that has a blade or is sharply pointed, and is made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person

The law does not interpret these categories any further, but it is expected that they include:

  • any kitchen knife
  • cutlery and bread knives
  • butchers knives, including meat cleavers
  • hobby knives and knives for trade use
  • utility and survival knives
  • trade tools, including those used for gardening and farming that fit the description of a knife
  • cut-throat razors
  • machetes and swords

The prohibition does not apply to:

  • folding pocket-knives, if the cutting edge of the blade is less than 7.62 cm (three inches)
  • replacement cartridges for safety razors, where less than 2 mm of the blade is exposed

When an age-restricted bladed article is sold remotely (such as online or by phone) the package should be delivered into the hands of someone aged at least 18. There are restrictions around the use of lockers.


If you are charged with an offence of selling a bladed article to a person under the age of 18, you have the defence that you took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offence. This is known as the 'due diligence' defence. However, there are some limitations to this defence where the sale was a remote sale.  To prove 'due diligence' you must prove the following conditions were met:

  • you operated a system for checking that the buyer was not under the age of 18 and that the system was likely to prevent such a sale
  • when the product was dispatched, it was clearly marked to show that it contained an article with a blade or was sharply pointed and that it should only be delivered into the hands of a person aged 18 or over
  • you took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to ensure that the package would be delivered into the hands of a person aged 18 or over
  • you did not deliver, or arrange to deliver, the package to a locker

How to Comply

In order to keep within the law and protect yourself and your business from possible conviction, it is recommended that you conduct a thorough risk assessment and introduce an age verification policy. This should be supported effective processes and systems designed to prevent an underage sale occurring. These systems should be regularly monitored and updated to identify and put right any problems or weaknesses, or to keep pace with any advances in technology.

Key best practice features of an effective risk-management system should include most or all of the below:

  • Age verification checks
  • Challenge 21 or 25 policy
  • Regular staff training
  • Maintain sale refusal logs
  • Strategic store/product layout and signage  
  • Electronic age verification and delivery systems

We can provide support and assistance to your business at any stage, including:

  1. Risk assessing your business and introducing improved systems and controls to prevent possible underage sale of knives;
  2. Early-stage support and advice following notification of an incident and investigation by Trading Standards; or
  3. Representation at interview or, if charged, at court to mitigate the financial and commercial impacts of prosecution.

If you are a retailer who stocks and sells knives and you would like any advice or support in this area then please contact our Business Crime & Regulation team, who will be happy to assist.

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