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The investigation process: an overview
The complaints process: this diagram will guide you/your firm through the process (click to expand).
Step 1 – initial assessment
After we receive the initial complaint, a case manager from ICAEW’s Professional Conduct Department will gather information from the complainant and sometimes from you/your firm.
In some instances, for example a fee dispute or a minor error, ICAEW is not able to get involved with resolving the issue. This is because you/your firm has not neglected to comply with ICAEW standards, guidance or regulations. If we don’t 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 Investigation Committee (IC).
Approximately 50% of complaints are closed at this stage.
Step 2 – investigation
The case manager will gather further evidence from you/your firm and the complainant to understand the issue further. If the evidence suggests there may be a case to answer, the complaint will be referred to the Investigation Committee (IC). A report is prepared for the IC to consider. You/your firm will be sent a copy of the draft report and you/your firm will be able to make representations on it.
During the investigation (if appropriate) it might be possible for the problem to be resolved between you/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 Investigation Committee (IC)
The IC will consider the complaint and all the relevant evidence including representations from you/your firm and the complainant. The IC will decide if there is or isn’t a prima facie case. If the IC decides there is a prima facie case, it will either offer a consent order, a caution or it will refer the case to the Disciplinary Committee (DC).
Read more about the Investigation Committee.
If the Investigation Committee finds there is no prima facie case, the complainant can ask a Reviewer of Complaints to review the IC’s decision. This must be within 28 days of the decision. Further information can be found in the ICAEW Reviewer of Complaints leaflet.
The IC will refer the remaining cases (less than 20% of all cases that are considered by the IC and generally the most serious) to a tribunal of the Disciplinary Committee (DC).
Step 4 – the Disciplinary Committee (DC)
A DC tribunal 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/your firm can appeal against the DC’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 Committee (DC).
Step 5 – appeals
You/your firm can appeal against the DC’s decision. The Appeal Committee will consider an appeal if it’s made within 28 days of the DC’s decision. It will either overturn, vary or agree with the decision of the DC. You/your firm may incur additional costs for an appeal.
How to respond to notice of a complaint
The most important point is that you/your firm must respond to any requests for information from us promptly and in full. Not replying can escalate matters, as a failure to respond or cooperate can itself lead to a disciplinary finding.
If you/your firm is unsure how much information you should give, or just can’t 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 have to make sure we have sufficient information to allow the IC to decide whether there is a case to answer.
We understand that you/your firm may be upset or angry when you are told the Professional Conduct Department is investigating a complaint against you/your firm. We will do our best to keep the process as efficient as possible and when we write to you/your firm in the early stages of the investigation we will provide details of the support available to you during the process. In return, we ask that you/your firm behaves professionally throughout the investigation. There are instances when our case managers are treated with aggression. This is not acceptable, and it won’t be tolerated. It may count against you/your firm during the course of the investigation and it could affect any sanction that is given.
Our process does not require you/your firm to be represented, but you/your firm may wish to obtain independent legal advice. 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 IC, we’ll 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’s there in case you want the IC to take into consideration your circumstances and ability to pay any possible fines or costs. If you don’t complete the form and, subsequently, the committee makes a decision with a sanction that you consider you can’t afford, you will have another opportunity to make representations but this is likely to cause delays for you. Therefore it’s better to complete the form before the case is reported to the IC.
The charge (since 1 July 2019) for disciplinary complaints is £180 per hour of PCD staff time and a standing charge of £220 per case to contribute to the costs of the IC. 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/your firm is referred to the IC and a case is found against you/your firm, you/your firm may be liable for the some or all of costs of the investigation. This will be determined by the IC.
We understand that being the subject of an investigation can be stressful. We have a number of support services available to you. When we write to you in the early stages of an investigation we will provide details of the support available to you during the process. This includes:
- CABA – 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 give 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. They can provide more detail on the process, timescales and other issues you may be concerned about. Please be aware that the case manager still needs to continue the investigation and any information you provide to them may be shared with the IC. A face to face meeting with the case manager might be helpful if there’s 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 medical condition
If you are suffering from a medical condition you may request that your case be considered by the Fitness Committee. The committee’s role is to act in the interests of the public. It will consider whether you are fit to practise at this time and/or whether you are fit to go through the disciplinary process. The committee is supported by a medical assessor and we will pay for you to have an independent medical assessment.
During this time, the complaint against you will be put on hold 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 Fitness Committee, please speak to the ICAEW professional conduct committee secretary, Emily Healy-Howell.
Key points to note
- You cannot usually stop the complaint by resigning as an ICAEW member. ICAEW has the power to take action against former members so resigning may not stop the case being reported to the IC. 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/your firm but all cases are subject to a review process. If necessary, the IC will make the final decision on whether there’s a case to answer and what sanction they believe appropriate.
- If the complaint has been raised by ICAEW, the Professional 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 IC, regardless of the case manager’s view.
- We publish details of consent orders and cases upheld by a tribunal on icaew.com
- What to do if you receive a complaint against you/your firm – frequently asked questions
- Guidance on Sanctions and the fixed penalty process
- Complaints, disciplinary and fitness processes and regulations
- Public hearings, orders and decisions
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