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Digging deeper: a more forensic approach to special investigations


Published: 25 Nov 2021

The Professional Conduct Department’s (PCD) Special Investigations Team was set up in March 2021 to focus on the most complex and high profile complaints cases. We talk to Nigel Howell, ICAEW’s Head of Investigation, and Sarah Brook, the new team’s Senior Manager, about the need for special investigations, progress so far and why flexibility is so important.

ICAEW receives complaints about regulatory compliance and the conduct of members and firms from a wide variety of sources, including clients, the public, other regulators, government departments and law enforcement agencies. These are initially dealt with, and investigated by, PCD’s Investigation Team.

This team, which comprisesaround 30 people, was until recently split into three smaller teams dealing with audit, insolvency and general practice. But since March this year, a fourth team – specifically tasked with focusing on high profile, complex cases – has been working alongside the three existing teams.

“Case managers in our investigation team are typically handling about 50 cases each,” says Howell. “And a small number of these cases are particularly serious, or high profile, or need deeper forensic skills to get into the detail.”

“If one of these cases is part of a case manager’s wider portfolio of 50, competing with 49 other cases, it might struggle to get sufficient attention,” he explains. “Or if it does get the attention it needs, the other cases might not get moved forward as quickly as they should. So we decided to create a new team that could deal with, and focus on, these more complex or high profile cases.”

The Special Investigations Team currently consists of three highly experienced investigators: a senior manager, a senior case manager and a case manager with skills in forensics. All the team are also chartered accountants and have previously worked in practice.

“They’re dealing with a relatively low volume, but high intensity, caseload,” says Howell. The team as a whole typically has a total of about 40 cases running at any one time. “We’ve got to be careful because if the number of cases gets too high, we’ll be at risk of defeating the object of having a specialist team that has the time and space to focus,” notes Howell.

More hands on

“Our aim is to have a caseload that means we can give these special cases our complete attention,” explains Brook, who was previously senior manager in the audit investigations team. Although cases dealt with by the other teams frequently require investigations, the new team is exclusively concerned with in-depth investigation; it does not get involved in the wider complaints handling aspects of cases.

“Our investigations tend to be a bit wider,” she says. “Other teams will usually have quite a specific point that they’re focusing on, whereas we know that maybe there’s been a company collapse or a failure somewhere, but we don’t yet quite understand why, so our investigations need to drill down in more detail, and take a broader perspective. This makes them a bit more labour intensive.”

“By keeping our caseload fairly small, we’re also able to work slightly differently,” she explains. “In the other teams, a senior manager might be overseeing 250 to 300 cases. In this team, I am overseeing around 40 cases, which means I have more time, so can work differently and be more hands on.” With a much smaller team too, the three managers can work side-by-side, reviewing the materials together. “This is what we need to do where something is more complex or more high profile, to make sure it’s had multiple eyes looking at it,” she says.

All hands on deck

There are no hard and fast rules or rigid criteria for which cases will be investigated by the new team. “We have flexibility in dealing with cases, depending on the best way to get things done,” explains Howell.

Many of the cases the team is currently dealing with existed when it was set up. “There were a number we already knew needed that special attention,” he says. “Now, when a new matter comes in that might be appropriate for the team, we talk about it and agree whether or not it needs more specific attention or whether it should go out to the broader teams.”

“Once we’ve decided where it is allocated, it doesn’t have to stay there,” adds Brook. “So if something goes to one of the other teams, and they identify an issue and say: ‘This probably needs to go to special investigations,’ then we’ll have that discussion. And likewise, if we think we’ve got something significant or with broader ramifications, and we dig around and find it hasn’t, then we will pass it to the general teams.”

“We never know what’s coming in,” she emphasises. “So the key to making it work is being flexible. We might be all hands on deck on one particular case, and then we might be able to start another case while we’re waiting on a firm’s response; then something else could hit the press, so we need the flexibility to be able to deal with that.”

“Because we have that time to focus, we can go through the materials and ask for more information that bit quicker,” she adds. “So we’re also able to identify the issues a bit quicker and whether there is a bigger problem we need to address.”

All the teams talk to each other. “Case managers will pick up things that need further scrutiny with us,” says Brook, “and some cases might move backwards and forwards between the teams, depending on what we find out.” Or a complex insolvency case, for example, might continue to be run by the insolvency senior manager, but with the addition of forensic expertise from the special investigations team.

Following the evidence

The team has been up and running for less than a year, but the benefits are already clear. The most complex cases have the specific in-depth attention they need. And on the flipside, the caseloads of the other case managers have started to come down, which gives them more space to focus on dealing with complaints and related investigations, and to move their cases forward more quickly.
“For all the case managers, it’s about following the evidence wherever it leads you,” emphasises Howell. The Special Investigations Team now has more time to focus on doing that for the most complex cases, and conversely the case managers in the other teams have more time to concentrate on investigating and following their own cases through.

“In terms of where we go with the number of special investigation cases, we will have to see where it goes over time,” says Howell. “As with everything in our teams, we are driven by the work that comes our way; we have no real control over the volume or type of cases. And because we have that uncertainty, who knows: in future this new team may get bigger.”


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