The investigation process: an overview
The complaints process: this diagram will guide you and/or your firm through the process (click to expand).
Step 1 – initial assessment
After we receive the initial complaint, a case manager from ICAEW's Conduct Department will gather information from the complainant and sometimes from you and/or your firm.
In some instances, such as a fee dispute or a minor error, ICAEW is not able to get involved with resolving the matter. This is because you and/or your firm is unlikely to have neglected to comply with ICAEW standards, guidance or regulations in such instances. If we do not think there are grounds for a complaint, we will take care to explain to the complainant why we have come to this view. Complainants can ask for their case to be considered by the Conduct Committee (CC) and so a matter may still be referred to the CC if the Conduct Department has concluded there are no grounds for a complaint.
Approximately 50% of complaints are closed at the initial assessment stage.
Step 2 – investigation
The case manager will gather further evidence from you and/or your firm and the complainant to understand the issue further. If the evidence gathered suggests there may be a realistic prospect that, if the allegation were to be referred to Tribunal Committee (TC), for hearing, that the allegation would be found proved, then the complaint will be referred to the Conduct Committee (CC). A report is prepared for the CC to consider. You and/or your firm will be sent a copy of the draft report and you and/or your firm will be able to make representations on it. If we believe there is no realistic prospect, the complainant can still insist it is considered by the CC.
During the investigation (if appropriate) it might be possible for the problem to be resolved between you and/or your firm and the complainant. In such cases, we will try to help both parties reach an agreement. Read more about conciliation.
Step 3 – the Conduct Committee (CC)
The CC will consider the complaint and all the relevant evidence including representations from you and/or your firm and any comment from the complainant. The CC will decide if there is or is not a realistic prospect that, if the allegation were to be referred to the TC, for a hearing, that the allegation would be found proved. If the CC decides there is a realistic prospect, it will either offer a consent order, a caution or it will refer the case to the TC.
Read more about the Conduct Committee.
If the Conduct Committee (CC) finds there is no realistic prospect, the complainant can ask for a case file review of the CC's decision by an independent case file reviewer. This request must be made within 28 days of the decision. Further information can be found in the ICAEW Case File Reviews leaflet.
The CC will refer the remaining cases (less than 20% of all cases that are considered by the CC and generally the most serious) to a panel of the Tribunals Committee (TC).
Step 4 – the Tribunals Committee (TC)
A panel of the TC can impose penalties (often referred to as a sanction order) such as reprimands and fines. For ICAEW members, penalties can also include the removal of your practising certificate and exclusion from membership of ICAEW.
You and/or your firm can appeal against the TC panel's decision (see step 5 below).
If the case is dismissed, this is the end of the matter as far as ICAEW is concerned. A formal record of the decision will be sent to the complainant.
Read more about Appearing before the Disciplinary Committees.
Step 5 – appeals
You and/or your firm can appeal against the TC panel's decision. The Conduct Department also has the right of appeal in the circumstances outlined in IDR 61.2. The Appeal Committee (AC) will consider an appeal if it's made within 28 days of the TC's decision. It will either dismiss, vary, rescind, remit back to the TC, substitute, or agree with the decision of the TC panel. You and/or your firm may incur additional costs for an appeal.
How to respond to notice of a complaint
It is especially important that you and/or your firm respond to any requests for information from us promptly and in full. Not replying promptly or at all can escalate matters, as a failure to respond promptly or cooperate at all can itself lead to a disciplinary finding.
If you and/or your firm is unsure about how much information you should give, or you just cannot respond within the timescale, please let the case manager know. We may give you an extension of time, for example, to retrieve files from storage. We will not be able to provide an open-ended extension.
When we investigate a complaint we always aim to be thorough. As a result, we may need quite detailed information. As an investigation can result in disciplinary action, we must make sure we have sufficient information to allow the CC to decide whether there is a a realistic prospect that, if the allegation were to be referred to a Tribunal for hearing such allegation would be found proved.
We understand that you may be upset or angry when you are told the Conduct Department is investigating a complaint into you and/or your firm. We will do our best to keep the process as efficient as possible and when we write to you and/or your firm in the initial stages of the investigation we will provide details of the support available to you during the process. In return, we ask that you treat ICAEW staff with respect throughout the investigation. There are instances when our case managers are treated with aggression, abuse and are threatened. This is not acceptable, and it will not be tolerated. It may count against you and/or your firm and lead to additional complaints and it could affect any sanction that is given.
Our process does not require you and/or your firm to be legally represented, but you may wish to obtain independent legal advice for you and/or your firm. If you engage a lawyer, you should let the case manager know and give them authority to speak or write to your lawyer.
Your financial situation
If the complaint about you is to be reported to the CC, we will send you a financial circumstances form to complete. While you are not required to fill in this form, we strongly encourage you to do so. It is there in case you want the CC to take into consideration your circumstances and ability to pay any potential fines or costs. If you do not complete the form, the CC may decide to issue a fine as part of the sanction, or to order the payment of costs, that you consider you cannot afford. You will be given the opportunity to make representations on any fine or costs, but this is likely to cause delay if it is done after the decision is made. Therefore, it is better to complete the form before the case is reported to the CC.
The charge (since 1 July 2019) for disciplinary complaints is £180 per hour of Conduct Committee staff time with a standing charge of £220 per case to contribute to the costs of the CC. These charges may be subject to inflationary increases.
Some cases can be dealt with quickly, while other more complex cases may take over a year to investigate. Throughout the investigation, we will keep a record of the time spent on the case. To help keep costs as low as possible, please respond promptly and comprehensively to requests for information.
If the complaint against you and/or your firm is referred to the CC as an allegation or allegations and the CC considers that there is a realistic prospect of the matter being found proved before the TC, you and/or your firm may be liable for the some or all of costs of the investigation. This will be determined by the CC.
We understand that being the subject of an investigation can be stressful. We have several support services available to you. When we write to you in the initial stages of an investigation we will provide details of the support available to you during the process. This includes:
- CABA (Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association) – the charity supporting chartered accountants. You can contact CABA directly.
- The ICAEW Support Members scheme – a support member is an experienced ICAEW member who has volunteered to help members who are subject to disciplinary investigations. They can help you draft responses to the case manager, explain parts of the process or just provide moral support. Please speak to our Advisory Services Team who will put you in contact with one of our Support Members.
- Your case manager – you can also speak to the case manager who is investigating the complaint. Their role is to manage the case throughout the investigation and gather relevant information and act as a point of contact for everyone involved in the case. They can provide more detail on the process, timescales and other issues you may be concerned about, but they cannot give you legal advice. Please also be aware that the case manager still needs to continue the investigation and any information you provide to them may be shared with the CC. A face-to-face meeting with the case manager might be helpful if there is a complex history to the complaint or significant papers to hand over. You may be liable for the costs of the investigation if a case is found against you, so if a meeting is appropriate, make the most of it by coming prepared with all the documentation you want to discuss.
If you are suffering from a serious medical condition
If you are suffering from a serious medical condition, you may request that your case be considered by the Fitness to Practise Committee (FtPC). Any referral you make must be supported by an up-to-date medical report. The FtPC's role is to act in the interests of the public. It will consider whether you are fit to respond to an investigation and/or to participate in disciplinary proceedings and/or fit to practise at this time. Where we receive a self-referral, ICAEW may also request and pay for you to have an independent medical assessment.
During this time, the investigation or disciplinary proceedings will be put on hold until the conclusion of the Fitness to Practise proceedings. This is to give adequate time to determine the best way forward. Your practising certificate may also be suspended which means you will not be allowed to practise during this time.
If you are suffering from a serious medical condition and would like your case to be considered by the FtPC, please speak with the case manager in the first instance, who will then direct you to the relevant team to deal with any referral process.
Where there is sufficient medical evidence, which indicates that your fitness to respond to an investigation and/or to participate in disciplinary proceedings and/or fitness to practise may be seriously impaired by reason of your physical or mental health, the Head of Staff and/or a Chair of any Committee considering your matter may also make a referral to the FtPC. Where a referral is made via this route, ICAEW will pay for you to have a medical assessment.
Key points to note
- You cannot usually stop the complaint by resigning as an ICAEW member. ICAEW has the power to act against former members so resigning may not stop the case being reported to the CC. We may also, in some cases, not accept the resignation until the case is concluded.
- The case manager does not make the final decision on the case. They may share their opinion with you and/or your firm but all cases are subject to a review process. If necessary, the CC will make the final decision on whether there is a realistic prospect of the matter being proved at a hearing before the TC and what sanction they believe appropriate to offer by way of a Consent Order.
- If the complaint has been raised by ICAEW, the Conduct Department may be able to close the case. If the complaint has been made by a third party such as an unhappy client, they can insist that their complaint is reported to the CC, regardless of the case manager's view.
- We publish details of consent orders and cases upheld by a panel of the TC on icaew.com.