An accountants duty is to do the right thing

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John Cullinane of Deloittes argued in an Accountancy Age podcast yesterday (link to follow when I can find it) that an accountant can have their own ethical standards but has a duty to point out all possibilities to a client and then do what the client wants so long as it is legal.

Frankly, I think that’s just wrong.

An accountants number one duty is to themselves . They have to sleep at night. Legal is not the same as ethical. If they do something legal that is in their view unethical then they won’t sleep at night. That’s no way to make a living.

Their number 2 duty is to their client base in general. That means one maverick client who wants to do a legal but unethical act should not pull down the reputation of the practitioner or expose their other clients to risk of investigation. And that’s a real possibility these days.

The number three duty is to their tax authorities. I think accountants have a duty to ensure tax is collected cost effectively. Pushing the law to its limits does not help that, does increase complexity and does harm the population as a whole.

Only after that do they have a duty to the individual client. And if that client wants to do soemthing the practitioner does not like, then the practitioner has an easy option. It’s to invite the client to go elsewhere. Which is exactly what I did with more than 50% of all people who wanted to be their accountant whilst I headed a firm.

It’s a lesson Deloittes and the rest of the Big 4 need to learn, soon. I was pleased to note that Mike Warburton at Grant Thornton seems to have done so. When the leading firms follow we might begin to clean up the act of this profession. In the meantime it’s depressing to note that Cullinane is president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation.