What you need to know about finding an accountant

By: Elaine Clark

Date: 21 November 2011

The term “accountant” is not regulated, so anyone can call themselves an accountant regardless of their background, experience, training or professional qualifications.

Like any industry or profession, there can be cowboys or people who don’t have the ability to advise clients on all aspects of accountancy and taxation.

If the accountant gets it wrong it will be their client who ends up in trouble. This can result in HMRC imposing fines, penalties and at the very worst – a prison sentence on the client.

How do I identify if my accountant is qualified?

There are formal accounting qualifications and on gaining these, an accountant becomes qualified. Examples of qualified accountants are those that are members of recognised accountancy bodies such as:

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ACA or FCA)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (CA)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI)
  • Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA or FCCA)
  • Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (ACMA or FCMA)
  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CPFA)
  • Association of International Accountants (AIAA or FAIA)
  • Association of Accounting Technicians (MAAT or FMAAT)

Should you only use a qualified accountant?

An accountant who is a member of a recognised accounting body should adhere to rules/ standards/ethics/guidelines set by their professional body.

In addition, if they offer accounting and tax sources directly to clients, they must have gained sufficient experience to hold a “Practicing Certificate”, which is only issued by their accounting body once they have shown evidence of having the necessary experience.

Accountants holding such a Practice Certificate and providing services to clients must take out professional indemnity insurance, which gives their clients protection in the unlikely case of a complaint or litigation being brought.

Of course it may well be the case that a non-qualified accountant has the equivalent experience and insurance cover. It cannot be assumed that your accountant is qualified and you should always check.

Are all qualified accountants good and unqualified accountants bad?

There are many excellent qualified and non-qualified accountants around. Often an unqualified accountant is referred to by the term “QBE” (qualified by experience). The challenge lies in just how you measure the experience of a QBE accountant.

Formal training ensures that accountants have been exposed to many, if not all aspects, of accounting and taxation. While it is essential that the accountant keeps their knowledge up to date in a constantly changing space, at least they have a base knowledge.

A QBE learns by experience. If they have not experienced a particular aspect of taxation or accounting, they will not have learnt about it.

What if my accountant gets it wrong?

Qualified accountants who are members of a professional body must have a complaints procedure that explains what clients should do if they have an issue with their accountant.

Included in the complaints procedure will be the right for the client to complain to the relevant professional body if they aren’t happy with their accountant’s handling of their complaint.

In the event of a serious disciplinary matter, the accountant could be struck off by its professional body following a client complaint. Accountants who aren’t members of a professional body don’t need to have a complaints procedure nor is there any recourse to a professional body.

Do I need a local accountant or can I use a remote one?

Traditionally, businesses have used a local accountant. However, businesses can now use remote/online accountants at a more affordable price.

Good remote/online accountants offer the same service and deliver the same quality as a traditional local accountant. They can be contacted, generally, by email and/or telephone when necessary.

Crucially, the credentials of remote/online accountants should be checked just as thoroughly as you would for a traditional accountant.

How can I ensure I choose a good accountant?

  1. Seek recommendations from businesses already using a reliable accountant.
  2. Ask prospective accountants for client testimonials or for the names of reference contacts.
  3. Check the accountant’s qualifications.
  4. Find out about their relevant experience.
  5. Ask how many clients that they have like you.
  6. Ask for a full break down of their charges – is their fee fixed or will you be expected to pay any ‘extras’?
  7. How will they ensure your deadlines will be met and that you won’t have to pay any fines?
  8. Are they regulated by a professional body?
  9. Do they have professional indemnity insurance?
  10. What is their complaints procedure?

(c) Elaine Clark, Chartered Accountant with Cheap Accounting.

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