Law Society issues guidance to solicitors advising on tax

Emily Deane TEPThe England and Wales Law Society has issued guidance to solicitors who advise on tax, drawing out their obligations within the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules and regulations.

The new guidance acknowledges the Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation (PCRT), which has been developed and published by several UK accounting and tax professional bodies, including STEP, and sets out the principles and standards of behaviour expected of all members. Compliance is mandatory for STEP members advising on UK tax matters and failure to comply may result in disciplinary action.

The Law Society explains that it has not adopted the PCRT because the obligations of the solicitors’ profession as a whole are already set out by the law and the relevant regulatory rules governing solicitors. These rules have been formulated over centuries, and they comprehensively describe the relationship between solicitors and their clients. They draw the right balance for the solicitors’ profession by combining the protection of the interests of the client, the interests of the public and the rule of law, while ensuring that access to legal advice is preserved and backed up by an independent regulator.

However, solicitors advising on tax matters are encouraged to be familiar with the content of the PCRT, which overlaps with many of the existing professional obligations on solicitors. For example, the five core principles of the PCRT (integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour) are consistent with the legal and regulatory framework that already applies to solicitors.

The PCRT expressly provides that it is not to be interpreted so as to be in conflict with any other professional duties of solicitors. Solicitors that are subject to the PCRT because they are members of one of the signatory professional bodies should therefore comply with the obligations and duties required by the SRA and covered in this guidance in priority over the PCRT.

HMRC also produces standards that set out its expectations of tax advisors. HMRC published a Standard for Agents which sets out its expectations of individuals and businesses that professionally represent or advise taxpayers. Where relevant, solicitors may wish to consider the contents of this or any other HMRC standards, but those standards do not form part of a solicitor’s professional obligations.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

PCRT: Continuing to raise professional standards

Business people discussion advisor conceptThis week we publish a short report reflecting on the use of PCRT (Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation) by the professional bodies since the Standards for Tax Planning were added in March 2017.

STEP became a signatory to PCRT in 2011 following its inception 25 years ago by the other UK tax bodies. PCRT is reviewed annually and updated by representatives of each of the seven bodies (along with STEP, these are AAT, ACCA, ATT, CIOT, ICAEW and ICAS).

In its present form, PCRT sets outs the Fundamental Principles and Standards for Tax Planning behaviours required by all our full, associate, affiliate and student members when they are advising on UK tax (regardless of the jurisdiction in which they may be based).

While 2017 saw the Standards introduced, the version issued on 1 March 2019 was the first major restructuring in 25 years to take account of feedback from our members. The updated help sheets provide guidance on how members can apply PCRT to their day to day professional activities, exercise their professional judgement and resist any undue pressure they may receive from clients or employers to act in an unethical manner. The help sheets focus on

  • submission of tax information and tax filings,
  • tax advice,
  • dealing with errors,
  • request for data by HMRC,
  • members personal tax affairs.

Application of PCRT

STEP’s Code of Professional Conduct sets out our core standards, and PCRT supplements this. It does not stand in isolation, and any member who is found to be in breach of PCRT will likely have breached our core Code, other membership requirements, plus any regulatory requirements that members may have to abide by.

PCRT does not only affect members in professional practice. Its Fundamental Principles and Standards of Tax Planning apply to all members who practise in tax, including employees attending to the tax affairs of an employer or client, those dealing with their own tax or that of their family, friends, charities, etc, whether or not for payment, and those working in HMRC or other public sector bodies or government departments.

Tax agents who are not members of any of the signatory bodies are not ‘off the hook’ either. All agents, including those with no professional qualifications at all, are covered by HMRC’s own Standards for Tax Agents published on 4 January 2018, which incorporates the principles of PCRT.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed HMRC’s current call for evidence on ‘Raising standards in the tax advice market’. STEP will be responding to this call for evidence by its closing date of 28 May 2020.

How do members use PCRT?

At its simplest level, PCRT is intended to guide and assist members, enabling them to ensure that they undertake work effectively and appropriately. In practice it is being used as a reference point for professional standards, helping members make informed choices.

PCRT helps members demonstrate the required standards to clients and employers, and assist with explaining why some planning arrangements are not suitable and cannot be undertaken, helping members to support their colleagues and fellow professionals in making correct decisions, and showing a commitment to ethical practice.

As professionals, members serve their clients’ interests, but also uphold the reputation of the tax profession, and the reputation of STEP as a society, all of which take account of the wider public interest. PCRT is a powerful tool in helping us retain public confidence in the work of members.

In these various ways, PCRT appears to be working successfully in supporting members, their clients and the wider community by describing the standards of behaviour that clients can expect when seeking advice on their tax affairs.

How do the professional bodies use PCRT?

PCRT has been widely promoted and debated by the professional bodies across our member communications, and its Fundamental Principles and Standards for Tax Planning play an essential role in promoting ethical conduct among our members.

STEP, along with each of the professional bodies, has entered into a memorandum of understanding with HMRC, allowing HMRC to report to us any alleged misconduct by any of our members. Where such a report is received, we will use the PCRT Fundamental Principles and Standards of Tax Planning to assess whether an appropriate professional approach has been adopted to determine whether we need to commence an investigation under our own Disciplinary Rules.

Finally, HMRC’s report, ‘Measuring tax gaps 2019’ shows a significant reduction in the tax gap attributable to tax avoidance. While there is no direct evidence, each body is of the firm belief that the changes to PCRT have helped to support this reduction. Any questions should be sent to Sarah Manuel, STEP’s Professional Standards Manager at standards@step.org.

The above has been adapted with agreement from Tax: Raising professional standards, first published by ICAS, April 2020.