Accountant confronts clients in profanity-laced outburst

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February’s ICAEW disciplinary orders reiterated the important lesson that accountants should always act in a professional manner, even outside the office walls.

It is not uncommon for AccountingWEB members to vent their client frustrations on Any Answers, but when accountant Paul Singleton saw his clients outside a Sheffield pub in June 2015 the “red mist” descended and he blasted them with an expletive-heavy outburst.

When Singleton’s cussing was brought in front the ICAEW disciplinary tribunal they had no doubt that his threatening manner brought discredit to the profession, and reprimanded the accountant.   

Singleton’s sweary rant was the result of a fee dispute with these clients. He had undertaken work with the couple and acted as an expert witness in the family court between the female client and her ex-husband. But the fees he charged for acting in this position spiralled into another clash between Singleton and his clients’ solicitors.

So when he found himself by coincidence outside the same pub as his clients, Singleton confronted the unnamed male client. According to the ICAEW case notes a conversation ensued during which Singleton reportedly said: “I am going to f****** have you with what I know about you”.

He then pointed at his client’s partner and said: “‘and you can f*** off and all.” Singleton then blasted the couple’s solicitors: “I am also suing that f****** solicitor in Chesterfield.”

But after the client complained to the ICAEW in September 2015 Singleton denied that his conduct was in breach of the code of ethics, despite admitting that he did use the offensive language.

Amid the fundamental breaches of professional behaviour, Singleton maintained that he had a genuine grievance against the clients. He explained how six months after he invoiced, the clients’ solicitors challenged his fees, which he agreed to do on an hourly rate basis. The solicitors claimed Singleton’s fees were too high and asked for a detailed breakdown.    

It didn’t stop there: a month before the incident the client accused Singleton in a phone conversation of overstating his time on the additional invoice and claiming that his original report was incorrect. Singleton was "utterly incensed" by this allegation. 

The fees dispute eventually ended up in the small claims court. In that instance, the judge sided with Singleton, saying that there was no evidence to suggest that he inflated his fees, and Singleton was awarded costs on the grounds that the solicitors acted unreasonably.

However, his fortune didn’t hold up when he entered the ICAEW tribunal. Despite Singleton adding context to the incident, the disciplinary committee decided that Singleton could not justify his behaviour on the night in question.

Singleton’s representative David Bradly argued that the event was of short duration, with no long-term consequences for anyone other than the defendant himself. But while the tribunal accepted that Singleton’s misconduct was on the lower scale of seriousness, it was concerned that he still showed a “lack of insight into his behaviour and also a lack of contrition”.  

“He had allowed his anger to dictate his behaviour which was grossly inappropriate for a member of the profession in a public place. He had contested the complaint. He had brought the consequences of his actions upon himself,” the tribunal said.

Singleton was fined £1,500. The tribunal initially applied for £11,858 costs, but Bradly challenged the work claimed and the complexity of the matter. The tribunal reduced the costs to £8,000. 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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09th Feb 2018 00:22

Will ICAEW be equally high and mighty to big 4 or big 10 for touting tax avoidance schemes that result in billions lost to the community? These schemes do bring the profession into disrepute.

Best to go for easy targets that do not lose them revenues.

Richard, I wish you/Sift would not give these snotty-nosed institutes any credit. There is so much going on behind the scenes. They lack credibility. The only use for them is marketing. They are not there for their members but to meet their personal objectives.

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to FirstTab
09th Feb 2018 11:10

Yes, exactly.

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to FirstTab
09th Feb 2018 13:09

Hmmm.
Some professional bodies are focused only on providing member services. Some have public interest obligations and at least one is a charity (CIOT).

The ICAEW rides two horses. It has obligations to act in the public interest and also to provide support and services to members.

I've seen many changes for the good in recent years.

Sadly many of those members who complain that ICAEW doesn't do anything for them have opted out of comms entirely - rather than only those of no interest.

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to bookmarklee
16th Mar 2018 18:43

this is what you call a biased point of view almost tantamount to fake news and certainly post truth

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By DJKL
08th Feb 2018 23:33

Do like the irony of the last two sentences given the original dispute.

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to DJKL
09th Feb 2018 09:33

Indeed!

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09th Feb 2018 09:37

That's an expensive swear.

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By Albasas
09th Feb 2018 09:54

Don't get mad get even.

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09th Feb 2018 09:56

The client was lucky he only swore at him.

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09th Feb 2018 10:11

Well he did cross the line in public so I guess that is an expensive lesson, in business and practice there are always going to be arguments over costs and it is the main reason people move accountants, which is all part of our free market economy. I am sure as others have said there was more to it etc.

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09th Feb 2018 10:29

Yes, he shouldn't have acted that way but how many of us have had a bad day and said or done things that we regretted afterwards. I can't see the point in small practitioners leaving themselves open to the Institute's disciplinary processes (and it's usually the Institute rather than the Association that we seem to hear about). As someone who left the Institute 13 years ago I've certainly got one less thing to worry about.

Agree with you entirely First Tab.

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By Robbo
09th Feb 2018 10:41

The ICAEW cost seem ridiculous (not surprised), no meaningful support ever given to small practice.

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to Robbo
09th Feb 2018 11:46

Perhaps Singleton should have asked for a breakdown of the ICAEW fees! After all, shouldn't justice dispensed be seen to be fair?

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to sammerchant
16th Mar 2018 16:44

ICAEW does provide a breakdown of their costs and this showed a certain amount of time already written off and other time duplicated. This was not a straight forward technical case which involved them spending a great deal of time trying to squeeze the charge into section 150.1 and prove that it discredited the profession.

Ironic that now the result has been published in Economia with the full 'f' words put in print! So whilst Singleton's expletives were heard by a hand full of people, the ICAEW in their member's magazine have now issued those words to 147,000 people. Who is it that has brought the profession into discrepute?

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09th Feb 2018 10:46

The behaviour was clearly excessive. Clearly very angry and the red mist caused an issue. Get meditating. In this sort of case, he surely had to get the money up front before doing the work. Agreeing the fees on an hourly rate showed too much trust and should have provided more regular updates and obtained payments on account. A valuable lesson learned and we cannot let these exceptional and unique cases overwhelm us. Finally, dodging such toxic, difficult appointments is one of my objectives, however some people relish the challenge and the negotiation. I'm similarly not that keen on HMRC enquiries because of the mess but some accountants love them as can charge their hourly rate to the fee protection policy. I similarly would like individuals called out from larger practices by Aweb and ICAEW rather than attacking the low hanging fruit, which is also HMRC's approach.

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By chatman
09th Feb 2018 10:48

[***] [***]

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09th Feb 2018 10:49

This seems like a story for the 1800s.

"bring the profession into disrepute!"

I really wonder if anyone outside the pub was even aware that the two were accountant and client.

To me, it just shows how out of touch our Professional Bodies are from reality in their 'professional offices'.

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to paulinleeds
13th Feb 2018 11:18

paulinleeds wrote:

I really wonder if anyone outside the pub was even aware that the two were accountant and client.

I'm reminded of the Old Monty Python Argument sketch in which John Cleese counters "I might have been arguing in my spare time".

Will all this mean I'm no longer allowed to thump traffic wardens?

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By chatman
09th Feb 2018 10:50

Bunch of snowflakes. When did swearing ever hurt anyone? Amazing what people and the Institute choose to feel offended by and to spend their time on.

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to chatman
09th Feb 2018 11:42

I could not agree more - so he was frustrated by the mendacity of the lawyers and the client and used the syntax of the gutter: big deal! I assume that the members of the panel at the kangaroo court are not exposed to the media which is riddled through with expletives and assaults upon the Queen's English which would shame the roughest of navvies. I can see now why there are a growing number of accountants quitting the English institute.

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09th Feb 2018 10:58

At the bottom of this article there is a link to Related content: An accountant’s guide: How to communicate fees :-)))

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09th Feb 2018 11:01

Poor swyvener - he didn't deserve that.

I'm minded of the time solicitors challenged my fees wrt a loss of earnings claim. IIRC, it wasn't worth arguing over a couple of hundred notes but given what the ambulance-chasers would be billing, it bloody rankled. So I do have my sympathies.

But we all know on which side of the line the Institute of Crony-capitalists in England & Wales would lie.

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09th Feb 2018 11:02

£11,858 costs..for a tribunal from your own governing body.

The fine wasn't high enough, but the costs are crazy. Getting charged by your own Institute for a disciplinary case against you- what exactly did your membership dues pay for?

Maybe he should have challenged the Tribunal's calculation of the costs and asked for a breakdown!

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09th Feb 2018 11:09

I did not think ICAEW cared about their code of ethics - that is my experience. The fines are so low compared to what they earn too.

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By Ammie
09th Feb 2018 11:12

Clearly working too hard. Needs to find a dark room and sit in it for a day or two.

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09th Feb 2018 12:23

ICAEW are a bunch of [***] [***]. Mince around in their posh offices trying to crawl up the arseholes of the big four and leave the rest of us to get royally [***] by any [***] who decides to [***] moan.

Some clients really do need things explained to them in words of [***], [***] and [***].

The cheek of the [***] of a solicitor to question the fee! [***]!

He should have denied the 'nature' of the exchange of views.

EDIT: Arseholes doesn't get [***] - noted for future use.

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to Kent accountant
09th Feb 2018 17:29

For those of us who know who you are, you may want to keep buying the beers?

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to Paul Scholes
09th Feb 2018 23:04

;o)

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09th Feb 2018 12:34

I remember well an ICAEW member who sat on the Disciplinary Committee saying "There is nothing I enjoy more than disciplining memebers". He may have said "incompetent members" but the glee with which it was said was really depressing. Said individual featured on the back page of the ICAEW rag not all that long ago

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to paulwakefield1
09th Feb 2018 14:45

Maybe he also meant 'weaker members' who aren't significant in terms of sub revenue so therefore easy to pick on. Usual story.

I asked my case to be escalated to 'independent review body' to find it's only 50% independent.... They did not tell me when asked who was on this 'review body' - their report was very biased. When I submitted corrections and accompanying letter, they did not send me amended report (so I don't know if corrections were actually made) and they stated that my submission was read 'once' they had made their decision! Total farce all of it. I have to say that one sentence in their report was 'They think its ***** fault'! I commented that it was not a very professional sentence for such a report.

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09th Feb 2018 13:59

A solicitor saying the fee is too high. That is rich!

And then £8,000 cost for a very minor disciplinary item where the party admitted guilt. Unbelievable.

Interesting they reduced the cost very quickly indeed. A reduction of 32%! I think they knew the costs were a rip off.
I am not a member of the Institute, past or present and am gld noting all the costs the pile onto disciplinary hearings. Reminds me of Brussels.

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09th Feb 2018 19:32

ridiculous micro managing behaviour by ICAEW they should have stayed out of it , i am glad Singleton won in court i would sue ICAEW in fact i am about too :-)

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10th Feb 2018 10:09

Outside a pub !
That might explain everything ?

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10th Feb 2018 17:19

If he wanted revenge, he should have just used the info he had to secretly drop the ex-client in it. Ways and means, people, ways and means!

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to AnnAccountant
19th Mar 2018 12:44

AnnAccountant wrote:

If he wanted revenge, he should have just used the info he had to secretly drop the ex-client in it. Ways and means, people, ways and means!


He could then done for not reporting a money laundering matter quickly enough and possibly be guilty of trying to cover it up.
Out of the frying pan....
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11th Feb 2018 09:43

The Institute are so far up their own backsides that they can't see the greater picture. The crime was to bring the profession into disrepute but Mr Singleton was fined by the Institute, ergo the Institute equals the profession. The whole concept of a subscription based organisation imposing a monetary penalty on its members is wrong and demonstrates that it is done to raise revenues.

The fact that they agreed to reduce the (internally generated?) legal costs by 32.5% shows that the figure was arbitrary in the first place - on that score they are the ones bringing the profession into disrepute. I'm all for a disciplinary process which has some sort of warning system for less serious offences and membership removal for the worst cases but arbitrary monetary penalties will merely result in more members jumping ship as I did.

It's interesting that apart from one contributor most people seem to agree.

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By mkowl
12th Feb 2018 08:28

I bet the client was a sheff utd fan

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By Dib
12th Feb 2018 13:39

That's just friendly banter for Sheffield. :o)

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By Shafeen
12th Feb 2018 15:45

If you have a look at the ICAEW Financial Statements you will note that ‘Fines’ are becoming a nice little earner for the Institute – increasing from £0.1m in 2012 to £ 10.5 in 2016. I have been through the process and this is an extremely time consuming and frustrating especially if you are a sole practitioner. I am sure the cost to Mr Singleton was substantially more as his own time costs would have been similar to those that the Institutes claimed. A significant proportion of the costs claimed would have been due to reviews being carried out by several different departments and the Tribunal hearing itself. I was warned by counsel that I should not aggravate the situation as this could be more costly. With all that is going on in this world it is sad that a few choice words should result in such a ridiculous action.

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to Shafeen
16th Feb 2018 14:40

There's so much legislation around, covering almost everything under the sun. I am confident that there is some law (either UK or EU) that dictates those administering justice should do so fairly.
Imagine the hullabaloo if a civil or criminal court issued a totally unreasonable fine, say £5,000 for dropping a fag packet in the street.
I agree that the accountant went a bit berserk but unless the Disciplinary Committee had full knowledge of his history with the client, they would not be able to mete out a fair penalty.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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12th Feb 2018 17:29

Whilst it's worth bearing in mind that this is an extreme case and unlikely to happen to many regulated accountants, it does again raise the question "what has the ICAEW/ACCA/Et al ever done for us?" or, more reasonably, in 2018 is registration really worth it?

The fines and costs are a real sting in the tail but even the process that complainer and complained-about have to go through, in even the simplest of cases, was enough to make me question what it was all for.

After 35 years with the ICAEW &/or the ACCA I gave up my registration 6 years ago and only then did I really appreciate what a millstone it had been and now it's a comfort to know that I can "do a Singleton" to any client, and only have to worry about my blood pressure.

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By cfield
15th Feb 2018 01:51

The implications of this case are a little worrying. I know this happened in public so there were witnesses, but in theory they could discipline you for using a few choice words on the phone to tell a PPI claims caller to bog off.

If being a member of the ICAEW ends up costing you £9,500 just for an ill-judged rant at a client, maybe it's time to say goodbye and practise without their precious letters after your name. After all, it's not as if you need to be qualified these days. They can't even swing that for us. I think the only reason most of us stay is that we worked so hard to pass the exams.

I've often wondered what they'd do if you simply refused to pay their fine and resigned. Could they come after you in the courts? I think they'd have a hard time justifying the costs if they did. And what if you resigned before the case was heard? Can they fine you then?

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By chatman
15th Feb 2018 06:58

There is absolutely no way I would pay £9,500 to remain a member of the Institute. I simply could not justify the cost.

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15th Feb 2018 11:32

I believe they can still collect the fines even after a member leaves

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By chatman
to carnmores
16th Mar 2018 17:27

How would they enforce it?

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By Shafeen
15th Feb 2018 12:47

If you do not pay or default they kick you out and commence proceedings.

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to Shafeen
16th Mar 2018 18:47

they can proceed even after kicking you out

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