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The Role of Professional Standards

Last updated: 07 May 2024 09:00 Posted in: AIA

Ian Waters, Director at Compliance for Accountants, explains the professional standards that you will be held to as an AIA member, and how they will benefit both you and your clients.

Over the last few months, I have written articles in International Accountant with a focus on compliance and small accountancy practices. This is my third and final article in the series, and it discusses the professional standards to which an AIA member in practice is held. Before I go on, it is worth reminding ourselves why professional standards (as well as technical standards) are important.

The accountancy profession is often still referred to as ‘self-regulatory’. In many parts of the world (including the UK, for example), an accountant is still able to practise without formal qualifications and without the need to belong to a professional body. The use of the term ‘accountant’ is not restricted in law. But, as a member of a professional body, if you cannot easily embrace the need to comply with professional standards, then perhaps we can at least agree on the value of being seen to be regulated and being seen to be compliant.

A respected professional body such as AIA has the right to restrict its membership (and the use of a designation such as ‘International Accountant’). Robust regulation is usually an important ingredient in the professional body’s ‘brand’.

Equally as important, the public has the right to know what to expect from a member of a professional body such as AIA. Therefore, proportionate, targeted regulation by a professional body sets its members apart from other accountants, and transparency of regulation reveals the high professional standards against which members are held accountable. Therefore, the public may have confidence that the vast majority of AIA members are trustworthy and observe high professional standards. This serves both the public interest and AIA members.

What are the relevant professional standards?

In the space available for this article, I cannot explore all the relevant requirements in detail. But perhaps I can give you confidence that you know the broad requirements and where to look for further information.

The Bye-Laws

The Bye-Laws are key, as they set out AIA’s high-level expectations of its members, and so make clear the commitment that is being made by an individual seeking AIA membership. The commitment you make as an AIA member is to both AIA and your fellow AIA members. There is the tacit agreement of members that they will abide by the Bye-Laws, as well as the explicit undertaking they make on joining AIA and renewing their membership.

Regulations made, and subsequently amended, by the Council are made under the Bye-Laws. While the Bye-Laws are updated fairly infrequently, there is more agility in the Regulations, which may be amended by the Council – to raise standards and adapt to evolving demands.

In the Bye-Laws, you will find provisions concerning:                     

  • membership eligibility requirements;
  • some ongoing membership obligations;
  • students and examinations;
  • the powers and responsibilities of the Council;
  • the responsibilities of different committees; and
  • liability to disciplinary action (particularly relevant to this topic).

The Membership Regulations

The provisions of the Membership Regulations include the various rights and responsibilities of AIA members. They set out the various classes of membership, those that may use the description ‘International Accountant’, and the different sets of designatory letters that may be used. An important means by which AIA monitors compliance is by way of the annual return, which members are obliged to submit annually by the due date. It perhaps goes without saying that failure to complete the annual return correctly may be regarded as a serious breach suggesting liability to disciplinary action.

I should also mention the provisions in the Membership Regulations concerning fitness and propriety. They are relevant to admission to AIA and to ongoing eligibility, and they simply reflect the standards that a member of the public might reasonably expect of a professional person.

So, there are various areas of the Membership Regulations that relate to professional standards and compliance. However, the rest of this article focuses on two other sets of Regulations that require AIA members in practice to implement specific procedures.

Continuing Professional Development Regulations

Although these Regulations are quite prescriptive, they are underpinned by the ethical responsibility of any professional to ensure they have the technical knowledge to serve their clients well – to not mislead clients and potential clients (knowingly or naively) into thinking they will get the expertise they need.

The Code of Ethics puts this into words in the principle of professional competence and due care, which requires an accountant to ‘attain and maintain professional knowledge and skill at the level required to ensure that a client or employing organisation receives competent professional service, based on current technical and professional standards and relevant legislation’.

This should always be borne in mind alongside the specific obligations you have under the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Regulations, namely:

  • to have undertaken 120 hours of relevant CPD over the last three years;
  • to include 20 hours of independently verifiable CPD each year (ending 30 September);
  • to keep suitable records and make an annual declaration of compliance to AIA; and
  • to support AIA’s CPD monitoring process.

Public Practice Regulations

Most of the public practice compliance requirements can be found in the Public Practice Regulations. Although the requirements apply most rigorously in those jurisdictions in which a member is required to hold a practising certificate, it would be reasonable to expect an ethical accountant in practice to adhere to the principle behind each requirement (as well as local requirements) in other parts of the world.

The Regulations set out the need to hold a practising certificate, and how to obtain one from AIA, before covering the monitoring of members in practice and their obligations in respect of:

  • professional indemnity insurance;
  • continuity of practice arrangements in the event of death or incapacity;
  • custody of client assets;
  • engagement letters; and
  • internal complaints handling

I am keen to impress upon you that, while all of the above exist primarily to protect the interests of your clients, they also serve your practice well.

Taking continuity arrangements as an example, these are required to be in writing. This is an agreement between you and your continuity provider placing obligations on your continuity provider, as well as making clear their right to do all that is necessary to ensure that your clients continue to be properly supported.

If drafted well, a continuity agreement will provide comfort to you if you find yourself incapacitated, so that you can place your practice in safe hands while you recuperate, knowing that the reputation of your practice and the trust placed in AIA members will remain intact. An effective continuity agreement will also help to protect the value in your practice – either for you when you are ready to return to work, or for your beneficiaries (should you not return). It might also protect any staff in the practice, which is to the mutual benefit of them and the practice.

The Code of Ethics

On becoming an AIA member, you agreed to comply with the Bye-Laws, the Regulations and the Code of Ethics, and the Bye-Laws make clear that a breach of the Code shall render a member liable to disciplinary action.

Part 3 of the Code of Ethics (relating to Professional Accountants in Public Practice) carries some requirements in respect of specific situations. Although those requirements are consistent with the fundamental ethical principles set out in Part 1 of the Code, you should familiarise yourself with the Code’s specific contents in respect of:

  • conflicts of interest;
  • professional appointments;
  • second opinions;
  • fees and other types of remuneration;
  • inducements, including gifts and hospitality; and
  • responding to non-compliance with laws and regulations.

Closely related to the Code of Ethics is the publication ‘Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation’ (also known as PCRT), relevant to the UK. It has been endorsed by HMRC and adopted by AIA. It focuses on the tripartite relationship between the tax adviser, the client and HMRC, and sets out the fundamental principles and standards for tax planning that members must follow.

It is supported by supplementary help sheets that cover:

  • the submission of tax information and tax filings;
  • tax advice;
  • dealing with errors;
  • requests for data by HMRC; and
  • the tax practitioner’s personal tax affairs.

The latest version of PCRT is, of course, available on the AIA website.

Parting thoughts

I assume the above round-up of professional standards relevant to AIA members in practice may be daunting for many readers. But perhaps it has been helpful in identifying some areas where you might need to ‘brush up’ your compliance knowledge.

As I alluded to earlier, although the focus of the AIA Bye-Laws and Regulations is on protecting clients, it is difficult to identify any compliance obligations that don’t also, in some way, serve the practising accountant well.

If that thought alone doesn’t fill you with optimism, then may I suggest that a thoughtfully crafted engagement letter goes a long way towards achieving compliance. The AIA website carries a range of templates and guidance for the use of AIA members, including recorded webinars, such as the three recent webinars in respect of practice compliance.

Finally, I would urge you to keep in mind the fact that the Bye-Laws and Regulations declare to the general public the professional standards that AIA expects of its members and what will happen if those standards are not met.

In having a regulatory framework that holds the public interest paramount, AIA and its members are seen to be competent, ethical and trustworthy – all things that clients and employers will look for in a professional accountant.


Author Biography

Ian Waters supports accountancy firms with compliance – AML, ethics, professional standards and more.

"In having a regulatory framework that holds the public interest paramount, AIA and its members are seen to be competent, ethical and trustworthy – all things that clients and employers will look for in a professional accountant."

Ian Waters, Director at Compliance for Accountants