There has been more attention of late on the corporate ambitions of major audit groups but news this week is a reminder that accountants are also targeting the high street legal services market.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) has become the first accountancy body to be able to grant alternative business structure (ABS) licences.
The ICAEW has been given power, which came into force on 14 August, to regulate probate services as a licensing authority for organisations that want to conduct probate and form alternative business structures (ABS). It means that ICAEW Chartered Accountants and ABSs licensed by ICAEW for this reserved legal activity can provide probate services directly to consumers.
The move into retail legal services comes as major accountancy groups step up their push in the institutional market, with two of the Big Four accountants, PwC and EY, have already formed ABS structures.
The ICAEW argues that there is a clear demand for the body, which regulates over 142,000 chartered accountants, to be given ABS licensing powers so that accountancy firms looking to provide certain legal services are not regulated by two separate organisations.
The decision has not been without controversy, with ICAEW last year reacting to criticism of the proposed move from the Law Society, which questioned its ability to oversee probate.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority remains by far the largest licensing body for ABS, a central part of the Legal Services Act’s model for liberalising the legal industry, with over 200 licences so far handed out. The Council for Licensed Conveyancers is also approved while the Legal Services Board last year approved the Intellectual Property Regulation Board, the regulatory body for patent attorneys, to become a licensing authority.
The ICAEW applied for the powers in December 2012 and licensing fees will be set on a sliding scale based on the size of the operation, with the largest firms expected to pay a greater rate to help fund a new unit created to handle regulation.
Vernon Soare, ICAEW’s executive director, said: ‘In approving the statutory order, Parliament has confirmed the Lord Chancellor’s groundbreaking decision to endorse ICAEW’s application as the first non-legal body able to regulate probate services and license alternative business structures. It is practical evidence of the role that the Legal Services Board is playing in transforming the provision of legal services and giving more choice to the consumer.
‘Over 250 firms have already expressed interest in accreditation and we believe this number will grow significantly once the opportunities afforded by probate and the use of ABSs are more fully understood. ICAEW plans to issue the first licences later in September.’