Professional enquiry – not so clear(ance)
Whenever a client changes their accountant for whatever reason, the Code of Ethics requires communication between the new and the old accountant to safeguard against the threats to compliance with the fundamental principles of integrity and professional behaviour.
Making the enquiry
As part of the Code of Ethics, before the new accountant accepts the appointment, they should get the client to release the former accountant from their duty of confidentiality and then write to the former accountant and ask:
Are there any issues or circumstances that might influence our decision to accept or decline the appointment?
This question should not be extended to expressly ask if there has been any conduct or concerns giving rise to money laundering reports. Any comment or response from the former accountant could amount to tipping off, a criminal offence in its own right.
The professional enquiry does not include any additional requests for information relating to the clients affairs, including a request for copies of money laundering client ID evidence, held by the former accountant. Such requests are not part of the professional enquiry but relate to a separate issue of handover even if included in the same letter.
Although the enquiry should be from the firm and in writing, email is an acceptable alternative as long as it’s clear that the enquiry is from the firm.
Responding to the enquiry
As long as the client has given the necessary authority, the former accountant should respond to the professional enquiry. As the former accountant you are not giving permission or clearance for the new accountant to act and should answer the question asked by stating what issues you think they need to be aware of when deciding whether to act for the client.
Acting on the response
No matter what the content of the response, the new accountant makes their own judgement as to whether to act for the client in now fuller knowledge of the client’s circumstances.
The new accountant should not act without taking reasonable steps to obtain a response.
Failure to respond
The new accountant should chase the response. If after chasing there is still no response, the new accountant should send a final letter via recorded delivery asking for a response by a fixed date and stating that if there is no response, the new accountant will be entitled to assume there are no matters that need to be brought to their attention.
Former accountant ‘disappeared’
Even if the client tells you the former accountant can’t be contacted or traced, you still need to do what you can to satisfy yourself that there are no issues hidden from you:
- Confirm the client’s story by sending a recorded delivery letter to the last address of the former accountant.
- Check that address with their professional body if they had one.
- Search the web for any details relating to that accountant.
Then the new accountant forms their own judgement as to whether to act based on the facts to hand.
Former accountant has fees outstanding
This is not a reason for not responding to the professional enquiry. However, with regards to the provision of handover information the exercise of a lien might be possible. See the helpsheet Exercising liens.
New accountant is acting without making a professional enquiry
The former accountant should consider writing to the new accountant asking why no professional enquiry was made especially if there are facts that they consider should be brought to the attention of the new accountant. The former accountant may need to consider whether the lapse is the fault of the new accountant or the client.
Failure to comply with the Code of Ethics
Members are reminded that a failure to act in accordance with the Code of Ethics could result in a complaint being made or otherwise attract the interest of the Professional Conduct Department (PCD) of ICAEW.
More details can be found in the helpsheet Changes of appointment.