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Complainants - FAQs on ICAEW’s disciplinary process

This page answers some of the questions complainants ask when they’ve made a complaint about an ICAEW member or member firm.

1. My accountant has charged too much for preparing my tax returns. Can ICAEW help me?
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The arrangement you have with your accountant is a contractual one. You should normally have a letter which sets out the terms on which the work you want done will be carried out. That letter should also explain how your accountant will charge you for the work.

If you don't have this information, you are entitled to ask for it. You can also ask for a written estimate.

ICAEW is not able to get involved in fee dispute which are contractual.

2. I made a complaint against a chartered accountant and wanted to be involved in the investigation of my complaint. However, I was told that ICAEW would take over the case and that staff would deal with it. Is that a proper way to deal with my complaint?
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ICAEW receives complaints from a variety of sources including members of the public, former clients and public authorities such as HMRC, the Serious Fraud Office or the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

ICAEW may itself initiate a complaint when it becomes aware, through press reports, that a member has been convicted of a criminal offence or breached regulations, for example, as an auditor or insolvency practitioner.

Complaints are always dealt with by staff in the Professional Conduct Department. Complainants are expected to provide the information they hold in support of a complaint and are entitled to be kept informed of the progress of a complaint and the outcome. They may be needed as witnesses to help prove a complaint and, in those circumstances, it is appropriate that complainants should not be involved in the investigation.

3. Why don’t you collect all the information you need at the outset?
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We do try to ask for everything at the outset. However, once we receive this information, or it has been seen by the other party to the complaint, we may need to ask for additional information. We appreciate this can be inconvenient but we do need to do this to ensure that our investigation is fair and thorough.

4. Why do you need so much detail?
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When we investigate a complaint we always aim to be thorough. As a result, we may need quite detailed information. An investigation may result in disciplinary action against a member. We therefore have to make sure that we have sufficient information to allow the Investigation Committee to decide whether there is a case to answer.

5. Are you biased towards one party?
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We are impartial. We are not there to represent ICAEW members or complainants but to look independently and objectively at the complaint.

6. The complaints process treats large firms more favourably than small firms.
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All complaints are treated in the same way, whether against a small practitioner or a large firm.

7. Why can’t the case manager tell me the likely outcome?
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Staff do not decide the outcome of a case. Therefore they are unable to tell you what the outcome will be. The case is considered by the Investigation Committee which is independent of the staff. The Guidance on Sanctions provides guidance for the committee when it considers what penalty, if any, to impose.

8. Can I meet the case manager?
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Please contact the case manager if you would like to meet at ICAEW’s offices in Milton Keynes or London to discuss the case.

9. How long will the whole process take?

For an investigation to be fair, it needs to be thorough. We need to research all the facts and give the individual or member enough time to answer the allegation. Although we always aim to conclude cases as quickly as possible, it can take from six months for a straightforward case to more than a year, depending on how complicated and strongly contested a case is.

10. Do you publicise adverse findings against members?
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Yes, we do. If the Investigation Committee reprimands or fines a member or a firm, we send details to a number of accountancy publications. If a Disciplinary Committee tribunal excludes a member or withdraws their practising certificate, we inform the press in their local area. In all cases, a copy of the adverse finding is put on ICAEW’s website for 12 months.

11. Can the member or complainant attend the committee meeting?
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Members and complainants do not have the right to attend the Investigation Committee meeting. If, however, the committee would find it helpful to meet the member, it may ask them to come to a meeting. Members have the right to appear in person at hearings by a Disciplinary Committee tribunal.

Tribunal hearings are normally open to the public so complainants can attend. A hearing will only be held in private in exceptional circumstances.

12. Why can’t you take my word for it that the accountant is wrong?
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A complaints process cannot be founded on the basis of accepting one person’s word over another’s. You will need to provide all available information in your possession to support your allegation.

13. Why doesn’t the formal complaint wording reflect my original complaint?
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To bring disciplinary action against a member, we have to see if the member has breached the disciplinary bye-laws or any ICAEW regulations. The complaint wording is therefore written to reflect this. We do our best to make sure the substance of the complaint reflects the original complaint, however, in some cases, the wording has to be changed.

14. How will you keep me informed?
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In order to complete our work efficiently, we will write to you and ask you to reply within 14 days. If you want to find out how the case is progressing or want to discuss your complaint, please contact the case manager. The accountant who is the subject of your complaint can do the same.

You can discuss the case with a case manager over the phone. Case managers may express their views to you, either by phone or in writing, but only the Investigation Committee or a tribunal of the Disciplinary Committee can decide what should happen. This means that a committee may not always take the same view as the case manager.

15. You have said that the accountant made a mistake but have closed the case. Why?
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Errors of judgement, innocent mistakes and acts of minor negligence are not generally considered as misconduct. If a member has made a mistake over a sustained period, then this may mean that he has performed his work inefficiently or incompetently to such an extent or on such a number of occasions as to have brought discredit to himself, ICAEW, or the accountancy profession.

If a member has done something wrong or improper and it is deliberate or reckless, it is likely to be considered as misconduct. Any act that is considered disgraceful or dishonourable is also considered as misconduct, for example, fraud, dishonesty, violence or indecency.

16. How does the Investigation Committee (IC) work?

The IC considers complaints against members and firms on a wide range of matters. It consists of at least 14 people of whom at least 50% are not chartered accountants. It decides whether there’s a case to answer. Members don’t have the right to appear before the IC.

If the IC finds there is a case to answer, it can invite the member or firm to consent to an order such as a reprimand, fine and costs. Alternatively, it may refer the case to the DC. If the IC decides there’s no case to answer, the matter is closed, unless the person who has made the complaint asks for the case to be referred to an independent reviewer of complaints.

We’ll write to both parties to tell you what the IC has decided and the principal reasons for that decision shortly after the meeting.

What happens if the IC finds there is a case to answer?

It can:

  • take no further action;
  • invite the member or firm to accept an unpublicised caution;
  • invite the member or firm to consent to an order; or
  • refer the complaint to the DC.

If the IC decides to take no action, we’ll record that decision. It’s not part of the member or firm’s disciplinary record. Nevertheless, the IC may take the same complaint into account if it finds there is a case to answer in a subsequent similar complaint.

If the IC offers an unpublicised caution, there’ll be no publicity and no fine, although the caution will be included on a member’s record. Also, the member or firm may have to pay costs. If the member or firm doesn’t accept the caution, the DC may consider the case.

If the IC invites the firm to consent to an order eg a reprimand, fine and cost and the member or firm is prepared to accept it, the IC will make the order without referring the case to the DC. Once a consent order has been made, we’ll publish the details.

If the member or firm doesn’t consent to the order, or if the IC considers the matter too serious for it to deal with, the complaint may be referred to the DC; or the member or firm can ask the IC to reconsider its decision on the basis of fresh information.

The IC has no powers to make a member or firm pay compensation.

All committees refer to the Guidance on Sanctions when they determine penalties. The Guidance on Sanctions is available here.

What happens if the IC finds there is not a case to answer?

The matter will be closed unless the person who made the complaint isn’t satisfied with the IC’s decision. They can ask a reviewer of complaints to review it, provided they do so within 28 days of the decision.

A reviewer of complaints is an independent non-accountant appointed in accordance with ICAEW’s bye-laws to see whether the IC should reconsider the matter.

Our leaflet, The Reviewer of Complaints, explains what happens if a case is referred to a reviewer.

17. How does the Disciplinary Committee (DC) work?

The DC considers complaints referred by the IC. These are called formal complaints. Hearings are held in public unless the tribunal has agreed to hear the case in private.

A tribunal (three people – one chartered accountant and two lay members) hears the case. An ICAEW member of staff or barrister presents the case on behalf of the IC.

A legal assessor advises the tribunal on law and procedure but isn’t involved in taking decisions. This legal assessor is an independent solicitor or barrister.

If it finds the case proved, the tribunal can impose penalties (often referred to as a sentencing order) and these are set out in the bye-laws. They include reprimands, fines, the removal of a member’s practising certificate and exclusion from membership of ICAEW. The tribunal can also order the member or firm to pay costs. Members and firms can appeal against a decision or order of the tribunal. If the tribunal dismisses the case, that’s the end of the matter as far as ICAEW is concerned. In exceptional circumstances, a tribunal can order ICAEW to contribute to a member or firm’s costs.

We will send you a formal record of the tribunal’s decision, whether you attend the hearing or not.

For more information, see our leaflet, Appearing before the Disciplinary Committee.

18. How does the Appeal Committee (AC) work?

Members and firms can appeal against a decision made by a DC tribunal provided they do so within 28 days of the meeting when the tribunal makes a decision and order. The AC considers these appeals.

The AC works in panels of five people: two chartered accountants, two non-accountants and a legally qualified chairman.

The AC can overturn the decision of the DC. It can also reconsider any order the tribunal has made. If an appeal is successful, the AC can still ask the member to pay the costs of the appeal and, in certain circumstances, ask ICAEW to pay. If an appeal is unsuccessful, it may order the member to pay ICAEW’s costs.

19. What if I don’t agree with the Investigation Committee’s decision?
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If the Investigation Committee decides that there is no case to answer, the matter will be closed unless you ask that the case be reviewed by an independent reviewer of complaints.

20. Can ICAEW make the member or firm pay compensation?
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No. ICAEW has no powers to make a member or firm pay compensation.

21. Should I wait for ICAEW to reach a decision before taking legal action?
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If you think you have reason to make a civil claim against the member or firm, you shouldn’t wait until our investigation process has reached a conclusion. You should seek your own legal advice straight away.