ACCA’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Approach to the Investigation & Disciplinary Process

Joanne Vlahos | June 27, 2017 |

In order for ACCA to maintain its global reputation as a leader in accountancy, we have a responsibility to ensure that our members and students act in an ethical and responsible way. We require high professional standards from our members in both their professional and business lives; should they fail to maintain them, we have a well-established disciplinary process.

But what does this mean in reality? When members and students fail to adhere to our bylaws, regulations, or Code of Ethics and Conduct, a complaint is received into our conduct departments and we commence the disciplinary processes.

This in itself is not considered a particularly revolutionary idea. Indeed, it is considered a commonly-accepted cornerstone of any sustainable regulatory body and, as such, ACCA is well regarded for its regulatory activities and processes. So, why do things differently?

In 2007, when the financial crisis was taking hold and both businesses and accountants were under increasing pressure, ACCA began to see a change in both the number and types of complaints we received. It became evident that continuing with the same approach and getting the same unsatisfactory outcome was indeed Einstein’s definition of insanity.

A new approach was needed; the question was “how can we handle these complaints in a more efficient and satisfactory manner and still retain our regulatory mantle?”

The answer was to take a collaborative approach to regulation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and create the Conciliation Service—a service that remains unique due to its duality of objective, namely regulation of the accountancy profession and the resolution of disputes through the use of ADR.

Our approach was to make a conscious decision at the inception of a complaint to assess their appropriateness for an ADR approach—with a clear line drawn for those matters that indicated a lack of integrity and those that did not. The former would continue to be treated in the usual manner (i.e., a full disciplinary investigation) and the latter being a possibility for ADR.

What Is an ADR Approach?

The form of ADR utilized by ACCA is known as conciliation and as with all forms of ADR is:

  • voluntary;
  • impartial; and
  • confidential.

Using these principles, the parties to the dispute are afforded an opportunity to work with one of our experienced conciliators to attempt to resolve their differences. We, as an organization, are able to utilize our resources far more effectively whilst also adding value to what most would consider a stressful experience.

The Process

The process itself is phone-based and requires both parties to engage. The conciliators, who are both legally and ADR trained, adopt a conciliatory approach to the complaint by obtaining the details of the complaint, the drivers behind it, and what a satisfactory outcome would look like. In turn, this provides an opportunity for the conciliator to advise the parties of both our regulatory remit and the limitations of the service.

This approach is completely unique in that it opens a dialogue with the parties that is not seen with a normal investigatory approach. It allows us to go behind the face of a complaint, understand whether the issue is financial or emotional and then adapt accordingly. This is all done with the conciliator aware of any regulatory issues that need to be addressed.

This approach affords the parties a far more practical outcome than the usual disciplinary approach. The complainant benefits from a tangible result and our members from the knowledge that we will deal with the matter as swiftly and practically as possible, thereby allowing them to return to their business. In turn, ACCA benefits because it allows us to offer real value to our members, whilst also carrying out our remit of acting in the public interest.

What Can the Process Achieve?

There are no limits on what can be achieved through the use of ADR. The parties are at liberty to agree anything they want. Examples of settlements include write-off of fees, free work, apologies, donations to charities, references, applications to the High Court, and, perhaps most importantly for our members, clarity for the complainant that no breaches of any of our regulations or rules have occurred.

With regards to what ACCA achieves, we have shown over a period of several years that the process is not only “easier” on the parties, but is also easier on us. We can close complaints faster with less resources used and we have parties who walk away from the disciplinary process with a far better view of ACCA than when they started.

If you are interested to learn more about our approach to the disciplinary process please visit us at on the ACCA website.

Do you believe your organization could benefit from a similar approach when it comes to disciplinary matters? Please post in the comments below or contact the author for more practical guidance.


Joanne Vlahos

Head of the Complaint Assessment Department, ACCA

Joanne Vlahos is currently Head of the Complaint Assessment Department at ACCA, which forms parts of ACCA’s Governance Directorate. During her time at ACCA she has acquired extensive experience in compliance, regulation and the use of alternative dispute resolution in regulatory matters. As a result of this Jo has recently spoken in both the Houses of Parliament and the World Mediation Summit in Madrid. She is qualified as a barrister and mediator in the UK and attorney in New York.


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