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 is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.