The hazard of professional advice

Apr 01, 2020
With advice comes responsibility as almost all advice has consequences, writes Des Peelo.

As a Chartered Accountant, whether in professional or commercial life, our qualification is relied on by others for knowledge and experience when we provide advice.

Advice brings responsibility, as almost all advice has consequences. A course of action undertaken, an investment made, a decision taken, a matter rectified, a risk addressed, and so on. The accountant can sometimes be unaware that somebody has interpreted a comment or course of action as advice. Even responding to a casual enquiry can be an everyday hazard in a complicated and regulatory world.

Letter of engagement

I, in common with other professional advisers, have experienced clients or circumstances where it is later claimed that advice was wrong or inadequate. Thankfully, none developed into legal claims – though I have acted as an expert witness in many such cases. Common factors in these claims included allegations that the client subsequently raised an issue that was not within the original remit, or did not take the advice, or varied its implementation to suit a different purpose.

It may not always be possible in everyday commercial situations, but it is invariably wise to have a clear letter of engagement (LOE) signed as accepted by the client in advance of undertaking the work. The real relevance is that the LOE can avoid any later claim of misunderstanding or ambiguity. The LOE can also state in advance what is to be excluded in the advice, as explained below.

Create clarity

In my experience, it is increasingly necessary to ensure that the recipient understands what the advice is not, as well as what it is. For example, that it is not legal advice, that it is not tax advice as may arise, or that the advice cannot be taken as reassurance to a third party (such as a bank or fellow investors) as to the standing or validity of the circumstances relating to the advice. The advice is for the recipient alone, and there is no responsibility to third parties.

The subsequent written advice to the client may then state: “This advice is provided in accordance with the signed letter of engagement (LOE), dated 1 April 2020. For good order, a copy of the LOE is attached to this letter”.

Chinese walls

Experience suggests that most professional indemnity claims for negligence arise through allegations of omission. In other words, some aspect was overlooked or understated by the adviser and should have been appropriately addressed. This, of course, enters into the grey area of opinion of which there is little legal definition beyond a simplistic analysis as to what your peer group would have done in the circumstances.
In the ordinary course of events, a Chartered Accountant is unlikely to face a conflict of interest in giving advice – although a wary eye is necessary for Ireland’s relatively small business network. Others may, however, experience conflicts of interest in a different way, as explained by a straight-faced story from the rarefied world of high art dealings.

In a frank memoir, a retired director of a major auction house in London explained  ‘Chinese walls’ as follows: on one side of the auction house, the potential seller of a painting is reassured as to this being the best time to sell a painting. On the other side, in the same auction house, the potential purchaser is reassured as to the wisdom of investing to future advantage in the same painting.

Be brave

Good advice is always worth it, but the advice might be unexpected. A senior politician, for example, battered by the vagaries of the world, remarked to me that if you are ‘being an eejit’, the best advice sometimes comes when the adviser tells you so in plain terms.

And how much should one charge for all this great advice? A wise PR lady, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, once told me that advice should always be reassuringly expensive.

Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.