Striving for auditor independence: why it is essential

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Auditor independence refers to the independence of the auditor from parties that have interest in the financial statements of an entity. It is commonly referred to as the cornerstone of the audit profession since it is the foundation of the public's trust in the accounting profession.

The independence of auditors and others involved in assurance engagements continues to be the subject of considerable importance and interest around the world, including Malta. In fact, the Code of Ethics became a legal requirement for warrant holders to adhere with.

Warrant holders are responsible for ensuring that the requirement for professional accountant's independence is complied with. As defined in the Code of Ethics, independence requires:

(a) Independence of mind - the state of mind that permits the provision of an opinion without being affected by influences that compromise professional judgment, allowing an individual to act with integrity, and exercise objectivity and professional scepticism;

(b) Independence in appearance - the avoidance of facts and circumstances that are so significant, a reasonable and informed third party, having knowledge of all relevant information, including any safeguards applied, would reasonably conclude a firms, or a member of the assurance team's, integrity, objectivity or professional scepticism has been compromised.

As expressed by Council of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in a statement adopted in 1947:

"Independence, both historically and philosophically, is the foundation of the public accounting profession and upon its maintenance depends the profession's strength and its stature." [1] 

In an important chronicle of the accounting profession, John L. Carey described independence as a state of mind and a matter of character. In the early part of the twentieth century, the concepts of integrity, honesty and objectivity were so familiar and ingrained that it was not considered necessary to have formal independence rules. The profession felt that written rules merely would have stated the obvious.

In 1932, AICPA Council considered prohibitions against auditors serving as officers or directors of clients, and rejected them as unnecessary. However, the proposal indicated the first concerns over a need to preserve the appearance of maintaining objectivity, as well as being independent in fact. After the Securities Act of 1933 was enacted, the Federal Trade

Commission issued regulations stating that it would not consider auditors to be independent if they served as officers or directors of, or had any direct or indirect interests in, public audit clients.

The concern was that these client relations might subconsciously impair the auditor's objectivity. This in effect introduced the appearance as well as the fact of independence as an independence concept.

Need for Such a study

One of their great advantages of sole practitioners is the ability to make decisions without referral, whether such decisions are good or bad, and to run their own business. The downside to that is that whatever happens in that office is their responsibility.

Traditionally, the sole practitioner has undertaken very similar work to the multi-partner firm. Times are changing, and the new requirements of the Quality Assurance Accountancy Board require that a key aspect of the audit monitoring process is the review of the sole practitioner's/firm's independence. Independence is fundamental to the credibility of the audit and the auditor.

Many problems may arise when auditing companies in a micro state, such as Malta. Due to the fact that Malta is so small there is a much higher chance that auditors and their clients are either related, close friends or acquaintances. It is therefore likely that a practitioner auditing the financial statements of a close relative or friend would pose a threat to the auditors' independence, and for this reason giving an unbiased opinion becomes very difficult. Maltese law prohibits warranted practitioners from auditing the financial statements of private exempt companies of close relatives.

The audit professionals who would most likely be faced with this problem and with regards to their independence are sole practitioners. Large audit firms have the ability to pass on clients to different members of staff who have no connection and therefore do not pose a threat to their independence and in this way clients may be retained. Sole practitioners, on the other hand, cannot pass on the audit to someone else in the firm and are required to resign and therefore lose the client and the income for the firm.

The objective of the study

The main objective of this dissertation is to gain an insight on how local certified public accounting and auditing sole practitioners treat this important concept of independence. The main focus will be on how sole practitioners ensure their independence in front of the 5 main threats namely; self-interest threat, self-review threat, advocacy threat, familiarity threat as well as the intimidation threat.

Besides the identification of the main threats, the study will also inquire in the safeguards that are applied by the sole practitioners. It will be interesting to see if sole practitioners apply only the safeguards which are created by the professional board, regulation and legislation or else they have introduced their own personal safeguards so that they ensure their independence.

This study will also question the viability of an independent sole practitioner in a small island like ours where there are limited possibilities, given also the tighter regulations which have been introduced since international major fraud scandals which have shocked the accountancy and audit profession.

Research Methodology

Besides the collection of relevant published data and literature, the study will involve gathering feedback from the sole practitioners. The total population as well as details on sole practitioners for the purpose of this study will be found from the MIA's directory. From a recent study done by Cathriona Spiteri (2009): The perception on GAPSE of Maltese Sole Practitioners: A Study, it was determined that the total population of sole practitioners in Malta amounts to 132. It is fair to assume that given that this study has been conducted quite recently, the research population for this study will be very similar.

For the purpose of this dissertation, both quantitative and qualitative data are required. Thus a survey will be conducted by distributing by mail a self-completion questionnaire among the sole practitioners to get the general viewpoint of those involved.

For this reason close-ended questions will be prepared. Some open-ended questions will be also asked in the questionnaire so as each individual may express his opinion and may add any extra remarks. Some semi-structured personal interviews will be conducted if the sole practitioners would make this possible. This would surely increase the possibility of gathering further knowledge in this very important area of the accountancy profession.

Definition of Sole Practitioners

The main distinguishing feature of an accountant who acts as a sole practitioner is that of being the owner of the business and operating with no professional staff, but only clerical staff.

Sole practitioners as a whole are not a homogeneous group and their work varies according to the clients they serve, which may include small to medium sized firms.

The successful sole practitioner needs certain personal qualifications, technical skills, management skills and marketing skills. High on the list of personal qualifications is integrity. The sole practitioner needs to abide by a code of professional ethics and needs to keep updated thorough continuous professional education (CPE) provided in Malta through the Malta Institute of Accountants (MIA).

Information provided by the client is most of the time sensible and confidential, thus the sole practitioner need to treat it as such. The sole practitioner must use his or her own judgement in making decisions and must be willing to accept the responsibility for these decisions.

Although the sole practitioner is limited by the size of the firms one can cater for, there are still a number of services that he or she will be able to offer and include:

Accounting and write-up work

Compilation and review

Tax services

Management advisory services

Audit services

From interviews held with local sole practitioners, which were published on the accountancy journal "The Accountant", there were identified the main advantages and disadvantages of operating as sole practitioner in the local scenario.

The major advantages of being a sole practitioner is that the fruit of your efforts are retained by yourself and the fact that one gives a personalised service to clients, which keeps a healthy relationship with clients and gives the professional and up to date insight into the client's affairs.

Clients rely extensively on the practitioners' advice and show full confidence and trust in them. In this sense a sole practitioner becomes a trusted partner for most clients, with whom they speak openly about the conduct of their economic activity. Thus practitioners have the opportunity to experience their clients' entrepreneurial determination, and the responsibility to guide it towards sustainable success.

On the other hand, with the ever-increasing complexity in professional standards, tax and general legislation, the ever-changing regulation and the unbearable time pressures involved in meeting clients' expectations, the sole practitioner is today, perhaps more than ever, finding it difficult if not impossible to maintain his technical expertise in all service areas by keeping abreast of changes affecting the profession, and at the same time delivering the usual sterling service to his or her clients. It is important to mention the deadlines set for filing accounts and tax returns and putting these all together it becomes evident that there is a strong limitation of client acceptance in number and size.

In a partnership, the partners might agree in which area each individual partner will specialise, but being a sole practitioner, a greater effort is required to keep up to date and attend most of the CPE activities that will be available. Moreover, being a sole practitioner, in order to meet the continuous deadlines in our work, requires great efforts and attention. Some might choose to discontinue certain service areas, and thus specialisation is becoming a necessity.

Standards and Regulations

Malta's Position with regards to adoption of standards as set out by the EU recommendation.

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