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Should ‘Accountant’ be a protected word?

31st May 2024
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It’s a long running debate with strong views on both sides. AVN’s Shane Lukas puts the case for regulation in the age of AI.

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I think most, if not all, accountants know that you don’t have to be qualified to say you’re an accountant. But there’s surprisingly little awareness of this outside the profession.

A 2022 survey by the IFA found that only 18% of businesses know that, unlike doctors or solicitors, it isn’t a protected term. When you think how much trust they put in their accountant to handle often complex financial affairs, it’s frankly amazing that business owners aren’t clamouring for regulation. 

I know that there are many unqualified accountants (and a lot of them using AccountingWEB) who are doing a great job for their clients. And that being qualified doesn’t mean you’re automatically a fantastic accountant. 

I recently ran a poll on LinkedIn asking whether there should be regulation or not and 89% said yes. Here’s why I believe that regulation matters.

Regulation is better for clients

OK, so you can be qualified and still be incompetent, I get that. But the difference for clients is that they have some recourse when a qualified accountant messes up. They can complain to the governing body if their accountant doesn’t meet professional standards or comply with regulations. With unqualified accountants, the client’s only option may be to go through a lawyer, which, as you know, is likely to be very expensive.

You could say that the onus is on clients to check qualifications when they engage an accountant. But as per the IFA survey, they’re likely just to take it for granted that this professional looking person in front of them has all the qualifications they need.

QBE is an undefined term

What does Qualified By Experience (QBE) actually mean? Again, I know that many QBEs are great at their job, but without a proper definition it’s wide open to interpretation. Does it mean five years, 10 years? Or could it be just a couple of years handling one or two clients? 

Five years seems to be used quite frequently as a guideline (the ICAEW allows QBEs with 5 years’ experience to take the Examination of Experience (EoE) and qualify for membership). But since there’s no consistency, there’s also no clarity for clients.

AI means the accountant’s role is evolving

The rise of AI adds another layer of complexity to the debate. As AI becomes more capable of automating compliance work, the role of the accountant is likely to evolve, shifting the focus towards interpretation, business support and providing valuable insights. In my view, this makes it even more important to have qualified accountants who can verify AI-generated data and provide strategic guidance. Clients must be able to trust that the accountants they work with have the necessary skills and judgment to navigate this new landscape.

While technological advancements can massively improve efficiency and provide better services to clients, there does need to be a balance between this and maintaining professional standards. The answer could be to require accountants to review AI-produced work and ensure that AI is used ethically and responsibly. 

So what should happen next?

There’s clearly a need to balance the protection of the term ‘Accountant’ with the realities of practice ownership. One potential solution could be to require that, while the owner of an accountancy practice doesn’t necessarily need to be qualified, they must employ at least one accountant who is. This would allow some flexibility as well as maintaining the integrity of the profession and giving clients reassurance.

There are plenty more issues in this debate that I haven’t covered due to lack of space. But ultimately, the goal should be to find a solution that protects the public, maintains professional standards and allows the accounting profession to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing business landscape.

What are your views on this? I may be setting myself up for some heated discussions but I’d love to know! Connect with me on LinkedIn and we can have a chat https://www.linkedin.com/in/slukas/