Leader – All-in-one sentences for fraud?

The debate about professional discipline took a sharp and unexpected turn last week, when the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, suggested that accountants involved in fraud cases should have their disciplinary punishment handed down by the trial judge at the same time as they were sentenced for their crimes.

Under his proposal, judges would sit with two expert assessors, one of whom would be provided by the defendant’s professional body. In guilty cases, the judge would pass sentence, impose a disciplinary sanction, make a civil law award to those wronged and, if appropriate, disqualify the miscreant from acting as a director. One hearing would replace as many as eight and the process would take months, not years.

The case for making justice swifter is strong. It is also clear that the existing law is very poor at convicting fraudsters and those who help them. But adding the professional disciplinary process to the criminal trial has one serious drawback.

At present, accountancy bodies can discipline a member even if they are acquitted of a crime because their rules are about standards of professional conduct. To allow an accountant, whose behaviour was highly questionable, to escape disciplinary action just because the member had been cleared on a legal technicality, would do untold harm to the profession’s standing.

The law must move faster and be more effective. But professional discipline must always look wider than narrow questions of law.

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