Townsend: Ex-SRA chief returns to legal regulation

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) was yesterday given the green light to regulate its members in handling probate work.

Approving the regulatory scheme it is putting in place, the Legal Services Board said ACCA members would make a “positive contribution” to the legal market.

As we reported yesterday, the ACCA – which has around 90,000 members in the UK and Ireland – has been an approved regulator for probate activities since 2009 but until now has chosen not to exercise its powers.

This meant the decision to do so was much easier than for fellow accountancy body the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), which had to go through process of being approved as a regulator under the Legal Services Act.

The ICAEW scheme allows ACCA members to gain probate rights under its oversight.

The ACCA does not yet have a training scheme in place to enable members to offer probate work, and until it does they will be able to go through others that meet its requirements, such as that offered by the ICAEW.

This involves a two-day course (or four half-day webinars) and a two-hour assessment.

The LSB concluded that in relation to governance, and professional indemnity insurance (PII) and compensation requirements, the ACCA met the requisite standard.

The governance standards against which the ACCA was judged were less stringent than for the likes of the Law Society and Bar Council, because those it regulates do not deliver reserved legal services as their primary purpose.

This allowed the LSB to approve the ACCA rules even though, unlike the legal bodies, it does not have regulatory separation.

Instead it has a regulatory board that provides independent oversight of the ACCA’s regulatory and disciplinary functions, and reports to the ACCA’s overarching council on the fairness and impartiality of those activities.

The board is required to have a lay chair and non-accountant majority – the current chair is former Solicitors Regulation Authority chief executive Antony Townsend.

The LSB noted that the board also has a non-lawyer majority at the moment (though this is not a requirement) – three of its eight members are lawyers.

They are David Thomas, one-time president of Liverpool Law Society and former chief financial ombudsman; Frances Walker, a former family law solicitor who is now a tribunal judge; and Rosalind Wright, the barrister who used to be director of the Serious Fraud Office.

The LSB said it was initially concerned that probate practitioners would only have to hold £100,000 in PII cover, but it was reassured by additional requirements to have cover for all civil liabilities incurred and at a level of 25 times the largest fee.

It added: “The ACCA provided additional information that the ACCA’s practice monitoring department, in many years of monitoring experience, does not recall having seen any PII claims that have been close to or in excess of 25 times the largest fee of the practice.”

The ACCA also does not have a compensation fund, which is not a statutory requirement but most of the legal regulators have one.

The LSB said ACCA members were also required to have fidelity guarantee insurance that includes cover against any acts of fraud or dishonesty by any partner, director or employee in respect of money or goods held in trust by the firm.

“In this way, FGI has a similar role to a compensation fund in that it offers protection for consumers in situations that are not covered by PII. In addition, the orders available to an ACCA disciplinary committee include the payment of compensation to the complainant and a waiver or reduction of fees.”

LSB chief executive Neil Buckley said: “We welcome the ACCA starting to use its authorised status and see this as a positive contribution to the range of services and service providers in the legal services market.”

Ian Waters, head of standards at ACCA, said: “This is an important development for practitioners who will soon be able to provide highly valued and comprehensive support to their clients following a bereavement.

“Accountants already do a great deal of work in assessing and valuing a client’s business, and helping them to arrange their financial and taxation affairs.

“The ability to offer legal services, including the reserved activity of probate, complements the professional services that firms already provide to clients such as inheritance tax planning, estate management and wealth management.

“Our members are already the most trusted advisers to businesses across the country.”

One of those members, Mark Gold, senior partner at central London firm Silver Levene, said: “We are delighted that ACCA has taken this step.

“This is will allow us to provide another service that our clients have told us they wish to have from their accountant. It strengthens our business leadership role with our clients and other stakeholders.”

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