Accountants are set to go head to head with lawyers for tax work after the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) yesterday formally applied for the right to allow members to conduct reserved legal activities.
The institute said the move would be in the interests of consumers: “Increased competition should reduce fees as services will be provided in one place. At the moment solicitors are seeking expert help from accountants to assist with the advice and assistance they give to their clients.”
Currently the ICAEW can award members the right to conduct reserved probate work, but it now wants to regulate the conduct of litigation, exercise of rights of audience, and reserved instrument activities in so far as they relate to tax work.
Technically, the Legal Services Board (LSB) cannot grant restricted rights and, if successful, the ICAEW would be given the full rights, but its rules would state that they could only be used for taxation services.
The ICAEW has also applied to the LSB for the general right to regulate notarial activities and the administration of oaths generally.
The rights would also give accountants their long-sought access to legal professional privilege.
As with probate, where only some of the partners in a firm of accountants qualified to conduct reserved work, the firm would have to become an alternative business structure (ABS). There are currently more than 220 firms able to do probate work, of which around 150 are ABSs.
The application  said: “Research conducted by ICAEW shows that the work currently carried out by accountancy firms would be complemented by all the further reserved legal activities so the ability to conduct them would be an adjunct to their current services and provide a natural link to the traditional accountancy practice.
“For example, accountants currently represent clients before the tax tribunals of the General Regulatory Chamber and provide expert litigation support to solicitors relating to both civil and criminal actions. They also appear in court as expert witnesses.
“Obtaining accreditation to carry out the further reserved legal activities is likely to be attractive to all sizes of accountancy firms. For example, the debt recovery cases brought by HMRC in the civil courts can include low-level debt and personal bankruptcy proceedings. This type of work would be within the scope of small firms as would the strict liability criminal cases brought in the criminal courts (if introduced by the government).
“Complex, high-level debt cases and defended company winding up proceedings are more likely to be within the sphere of larger firms as would complex tax fraud/evasion cases. The ability to prepare documents relating to property and trusts is likely to be attractive to all sizes of firms as would administration of oaths. However, notarial services are more likely to be used by larger firms.”
The institute said the proposed restriction to tax work would complement its existing probate regulation “as it would build upon accredited firms’ current areas of business relating to personal wealth, tax and financial planning”.
The application said accountants wanting to obtain the rights would have to attend courses and pass assessments “that are, as a minimum, of a comparable standard to that of the solicitors’ legal practice course”.
Duncan Wiggetts, ICAEW executive director of professional standards, said: “As an experienced regulator I am confident ICAEW will ensure its members and firms provide excellent reserved legal services to the public.
“The application follows the successful authorisation and licensing for probate by ICAEW and promotes the Act’s objectives of widening consumer choice in the legal services market and of protecting the consumer through effective regulation.”
The Legal Services Board has a year to make its decision on the application.
- The Ministry of Justice has formally approved  the Bar Standards Board’s application  to become an ABS licensing authority. A statutory instrument to that effect will be laid before Parliament. The BSB hopes to start accepting applications from October and is seeking potential ABSs  to pilot the process.