The Appeal Committee deals with cases where individuals and firms wish to challenge the findings, decisions and orders made by three other ICAEW committees: the Disciplinary, Fitness and Review committees.
“We are the final committee and review decisions made predominantly by the Disciplinary Committee, but also by other first instance committees within ICAEW’s structure,” explains Withington. “We effectively provide the opportunity for a member who is dissatisfied with a decision of a previous committee to appeal and have their case looked at again by a completely independent group.”
Each case is heard by a panel, which is drawn from the committee and must consist of five members: two chartered accountants, two lay members and a chair who is a barrister or solicitor. The committee has a minimum of 14 members, of whom at least half must be non-accountant members.
An Appeal Committee panel is slightly larger than, for example, a Disciplinary Committee tribunal, and this is part of its strength. “The structure means that we’re drawing on both the experience and expertise of the two accountant members but also that of the two non-accountant members, which allows us to bring a wide variety of perspectives to each case,” Withington explains. “It’s a very collaborative exercise.”
The committee hears around 12 to 18 cases a year. “We deal with a fraction of the work of other committees because only a relatively few cases come through to us on appeal,” Withington says. “But the nature of our role means we tend to get involved in the more serious, difficult and contentious cases. And they often involve someone who has been excluded from membership and wants to challenge that decision.”
“We are the final stage of appeal within the ICAEW disciplinary structure. If someone remains dissatisfied with our decision, then they have to apply to the High Court; this happens infrequently, but there is still that opportunity.”
Open and transparent
The format of the hearings, which are normally held in public, is set out in the Appeal Committee Regulations, and is similar to that adopted in civil and criminal proceedings. “We tend to sit 10am to 5pm,” explains Withington. “We’ll also meet about half an hour before the hearing to make sure everyone has got all the necessary documentation and to discuss what we each have identified as the key issues we need to determine.”
The panel then hears representations from the appellant – who is typically an ICAEW member or firm wanting to challenge a particular decision – and submissions from a representative on behalf the Disciplinary Committee or another committee. It then makes a decision.
For each appeal, the committee has the power to increase or reduce any penalty, and decisions are reached on a majority basis. The decision is written down in a “record of decision”, which is sent to the member or firm after the hearing.
“Those cases that come to us are often the most difficult, finally balanced ones,” explains Withington. “So sometimes we might take a different view in relation to the merits of a case. And that’s in part because we’re looking at it afresh, and we’re also a slightly larger panel with a different composition of expertise, which means there might be additional experience to be brought to bear.”
“All of our hearings are heard in public,” he adds. “Making sure that the process is open and transparent is an absolute priority. We want it to be fair, and seen to be fair. And that’s the benchmark we set ourselves.”
During the pandemic, the hearings have been held virtually. “I don’t think, in terms of the practicalities, there is any great difference between when we sit in person or remotely,” observes Withington. “I suspect many people might prefer to have the opportunity of seeing us face-to-face and being able to participate directly. But equally, we have all been pleasantly surprised by how effectively remote hearings have worked. We don’t feel it places anyone at a disadvantage.”
Challenging and rewarding
Withington believes serving on the committee has made him a better practitioner in his own professional life. “It’s been useful because I see how cases are presented to me, and the kind of arguments and representations that are made, and these inform me when I’m next acting in my role as a barrister,” he explains.
He’s also found it enjoyable and satisfying to get to grips with a different field and to work in a collegial atmosphere that brings out the professionalism and skill of both the accountant and lay members. “It’s very valuable to be at the forefront of seeking to make a profession a better one, and to effectively utilise the experience that we’ve all built up to enhance and maintain standards,” he says.
“It’s an interesting and rewarding group of people to work with,” he adds. “They are, without exception, hugely committed and very diligent in the way they go about their function, and it’s stimulating and enjoyable to work with them to make sure that we come to the right decision.”
He urges anyone interested in serving on the committee to get in touch with himself or other members to discuss the practicalities and find out more about what is involved. Prospective members can also come along to hearings and see the committee do its work in public.
A final review
“As the Appeal Committee, we’re effectively the final internal review, offering people an opportunity to ensure that everything that ought to have been done has been carried out properly and correctly,” concludes Withington. “So we provide that final chance.”
It’s this aspect that, for him, makes serving on the committee so interesting. “It’s a mix of understanding matters of accountancy practice and matters of ethical good practice,” he says. “It’s both an interesting and a challenging process because it means we’re having to scrutinise the underlying merits of the case, but also the procedures and way in which the case has developed and been determined before our involvement.”
"It’s absolutely critical, and why these hearings are so valuable and important, that an individual has that last opportunity to present their case before a final decision is made.”
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