Charity annual returns: an end to lengthy filing extensions, the 2021 annual return service now available, and when electronic signatures can be used

Charities granted an extension to file their annual return, report and accounts by the Charity Commission prior to 30 June 2021 now have until 30 September 2021 to file those documents, according to the Commission’s updated coronavirus guidance.

A charity usually has to submit its annual return to the Commission within ten months of the end of its financial year – for example, if the end of a charity’s financial year corresponds with the end of the calendar year, this means that its annual return must be submitted before the end of the following October.

The Charity Commission, however, agreed to a considerable number of filing extensions for charities that were unable to file in time for reasons related to the COVID-19, as part of its flexible and supportive approach to regulation in response to the pandemic.

It has previously been reported that the Commission granted filing extensions to around 90 per cent of charities asking for such extensions, and that they numbered around 5,000 by mid-May.  Those charities – and any further charities that received filing extensions before the end of June – will now need to meet their filing commitments by the end of September, if they haven’t done so already.

Charities still encountering difficulties with meeting filing commitments as a result of the pandemic and with a filing date between 1 July and 30 September 2021, can still apply for a filing extension, according to the updated guidance – but any extension granted will be for a fixed period of three months from the date of the application.

The 2021 charity annual return service is now available for charities able to submit their returns, and the Commission has updated its guidance on preparing an annual return both to reflect its new approach to filing extensions and to include an easy reference spreadsheet of the questions to be answered in the annual return, to help charities gather the information necessary for its completion.

Charities should also be aware that the Commission has updated section 3.2 of its guidance on charity reporting and accounting and its guidance for trustees on the independent examination of charity accounts to assist trustees in assessing whether or not electronic signatures can be used for balance sheets, trustees' annual reports and any independent examiner's report required for the charity. 

The guidance now states that generally "wet ink" or handwritten signatures are not necessary for these documents, and that electronic signatures can be used instead – unless the charity's governing document contains any specific requirements as to the use of handwritten or electronic signatures, in which case the charity will have to abide by the requirements of its governing document. 

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