After Leeson, auditors stage courtroom drama

Nick Leeson may be out of jail, but for Price- waterhouseCoopers, the UK's largest accountancy firm, the fall-out from the collapse of Barings Bank is only just beginning to hit.

As the rogue trader arrived back on British soil last month, Barings' liquidator quietly announced that a pounds 1bn court case against the bank's auditor, Coopers & Lybrand - now merged with Price Waterhouse into PwC - had been scheduled for early 2001.

And more trouble looms. In November, the firm will be hauled up in front of a disciplinary tribunal by the accountancy profession's watchdog. The little-known regulator hit the headlines in February this year when it imposed a record pounds 3.5m fine on Coopers for losing the plot during its audits of Maxwell's corrupt business empire.

Rival Big Five accountancy firms are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of PwC partners being forced to explain how their audits of Barings failed to spot Leeson's creation of a financial abyss capable of bringing down Britain's oldest merchant bank. And to add to PwC's humiliation, it is one of these Big Five rivals, Ernst & Young, which is acting as liquidator and bringing the case.

For the Ernst & Young team, the case holds much fascination. Not only have they met the infamous rogue trader himself - Leeson has spent two and a half days with them explaining how he hid his activities for so long - but they have also been able to pore over the weaknesses and mistakes of their biggest rival.

This situation is by no means unique. Accountants from rival firms regularly square up to each other across the courtroom and in the offices of City law firms. The accountancy giants have been regularly pitched against each other in protracted legal battles since the 1970s. When the accountancy giants started buying up small specialist insolvency practices and the fashion for suing auditors took off.

Price Waterhouse, for example, was appointed liquidator of the Maxwell empire after its 1991 collapse, and for years led the legal proceedings against its auditor, Coopers. When the two firms announced their engagement in 1998, it was forced to hand the case to another firm.

In public, partners of the firms involved deny getting any pleasure out of dragging their rivals through the mire. But the firms are now so large and well-stocked with specialists in every conceivable field, the potential client has little to differentiate them but name and reputation.

The acres of adverse press coverage such cases attract give a firm's reputation a battering. It can even help persuade major clients to take away business. Audit contracts for FT-SE 100 firms are routinely worth hundreds of millions of pounds. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, that members of other Big Five firms found it hard to disguise their relish at PwC's discomfort in February as the pounds 3.5m fine imposed on the firm over the Maxwell affair hit the headlines.

The world of accountancy is relatively small. For some, rivals are ex- colleagues. Others will meet regularly at conferences, or at activities organised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and the tax and insolvency professional bodies. Accidental meetings with someone from a firm you are suing, or being sued by, are frequent.

All admit that firms in the firing line generally co-operate with an audit investigation only after it has been forced to by the insolvency laws, and then only grudgingly. Liquidators often have to wait years before they can force the release of audit working papers, which often contain vital evidence about an audit's shortcomings - although this process will be sped up by the Woolf legal reforms. For the partners and senior staff involved, the affair can cause distress over a long period.

Audit partners involved are regularly named and shamed in court actions and disciplinary proceedings which, as evidenced by the Barings case, usually take place years after the event.

Gareth Davies and Andrew Turner, the PwC partners who in November face the accountancy watchdog, have had to wait four years for a chance to defend their reputations. Their suffering could continue until 2001 unless the two sides reach a settlement before the trial date.

But some in the profession are aware that when mud sticks, in the eyes of the public, it sticks to the profession as a whole. Everyone who went to see Rogue Trader, the film that tells the story of the Barings collapse, remembers how easily the actor playing the auditor was fooled by Leeson's scissors-and-glue forgeries. Few, however, can recall the name of the audit firm. So when, over the next 18 months, accountancy firms start flinging mud at each other over the Barings affair, it is not just PwC that will suffer, but the accountancy profession as a whole.

NChris Quick is deputy news editor of 'Accountancy Age'