Trust in a CPA’s signature is immutable

The designation of chartered professional accountant confers rights, such as the exclusive right to practice certain professional acts. But, CPAs must also comply with obligations, all of which exist for the protection of the public. The title is therefore not only a privilege but also a seal of quality and reliability, an emblem of trust, sought after and valued by the public.

We were reminded of this by the Disciplinary council of the Order in its 2020 decision regarding the involvement of a CPA in a case that was, strictly speaking, outside the scope of the practice of the profession.1  In this case, a CPA was accused of having signed, out of complacency, a letter in support of a former client who claimed to be unable to visit her mother due to a family conflict, despite not having had any recent contact with the mother of that former client nor having verified whether the alleged facts in the letter were founded. The document was later used in a civil dispute regarding the homologation of a protection mandate for the mother.

A disciplinary complaint was lodged against said CPA, accusing him of having contravened section 34 of the CPA Code of ethics, which provides for the following:

“34. A member shall not sign, prepare, produce or even associate his name with any letter, attestation, opinion, report, statement, representation, financial statement or other document, which he knows, or should know, contains false or misleading information, out of complacency or without ensuring that such documents are in compliance with good practices or current scientific knowledge.”

Although he pled guilty, the member attempted to justify his conduct by the fact that the action taken was not directly tied to the practice of the profession and that he was unaware that the document to which he had affixed his signature was intended for use in legal proceedings.

As the Disciplinary council pointed out during the hearing, this is precisely the crux of the problem.

The signature of a CPA carries authority and is considered an emblem of truth. Without putting the profession on a pedestal, we must acknowledge the reality that the title of CPA, like many other professional titles, inspires trust among the public. Therefore, when a document is signed by a CPA, the expectation is that the information therein is accurate.

Obviously, this is a perfectly logical and reasonable conclusion when the document in question is produced in the course of CPA duties. However, what was made clear by the Disciplinary council’s decision is that the public is entirely justified in having the same expectations when a CPA signs a non-accounting document.

Takeaways from this case

  • The ethical responsibility of a CPA may exceed the scope of the practice of the profession.
  • The signature of a CPA is an emblem of truth and authority.
  • CPAs must be doubly cautious when affixing their signature to documents that were prepared by someone else, even when said documents are not directly related to the practice of the profession.
  • Before guaranteeing any document by affixing their signature, CPAs must verify the accuracy of the information therein.
2020 QCCDCPA 35 (CanLII)