Accountant's clients in fees dispute: Trading standards officers called in as protest campaign gathers pace

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AN ACCOUNTANT being investigated by trading standards officers is the target of a series of protests by a group of clients that claims his fees are too high.

So far, the group has mounted a protest in the reception area of Roger Beverly-Wilson's offices in Emsworth, Hampshire and held a demonstration in the front garden of his house in Park Crescent, also in Emsworth.

Group members have met trading standards officers, and prompted an investigation into the appearance of an advertisement which wrongly stated that Mr Beverly-Wilson's firm was a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. The investigation does not touch on Mr Beverly-Wilson's fees.

The group, which includes a former friend of the accountant, and a number of people who run small businesses, plans to meet at the Port Solent marina near Portsmouth on Thursday to discuss the next moves.

Robin Oliver, who runs a car hire business and is a founder member of the protest group, said: 'We feel we have to take this action to draw attention to the matter. There is no other course of action open to us.'

He said that, because Mr Beverly- Wilson was not a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the professional body was powerless to intervene. He added: 'It seems ridiculous to me that anyone can set themselves up as an accountant and deal with important and sensitive financial information.'

The Independent has contacted 14 people with serious concerns over what they claim are the excessive invoices received from Mr Beverly-Wilson.

Of those, 13 were or are being sued by the accountant in the county court for non-payment of bills. One person was judged to have been improperly billed, three people had their bills reduced after arbitration in court and one person had to pay his full bill as the accountancy fees had been justified.

Two people settled out of court for a lower figure and one company ceased trading before the matter came to court. Five cases have yet to be decided.

One of those being taken through the courts is Richard Burkart, a motor mechanic, who knew Mr Beverly-Wilson's parents and welcomed him as a guest at his daughter's wedding two years ago.

He said: 'I regarded him as a friend and certainly did not expect to end up in court with him.'

The group was formed following the response to advertisments placed by Robin Oliver's brother Michael in a local newspaper in February, asking people who had 'serious problems' with their accountant to respond. The advertisement did not mention a name, address or area.

The group made its first protest on 15 April when members took placards outlining their grievances into the reception area of Mr Beverly-Wilson's offices. They were told the accountant would not see them without an appointment and were expelled from the office by police.

On 22 July, members of the group congregated in the front garden of Mr Beverly-Wilson's home, named 'Fiscal House', and used a loud-hailer to request that he meet them to discuss their concerns. They also handed out leaflets to neighbours.

After 30 minutes, police arrived and asked the protesters to move to the pavement, where the demonstration continued for another hour.

Charles McGinty, a freelance engineer who took part in the demonstration, said: 'Actually the protest was very orderly and peaceful.

'The message was 'please come out and face your clients about your bills'.'

Kevin Crane, who runs a sales and distribution company, said: ' We are respectable professional people who feel strongly about this matter, otherwise we wouldn't waste so much time and effort drawing attention to it.'

Robin Oliver has expressed concern at the appearance of an advertisement in the 1993 Hampshire Business Directory in which Mr Beverly-Wilson's business, Beverly-Wilson and Company, was billed as being a firm of chartered accountants. The Institute of Chartered Accountants has since confirmed that the firm is not on its list of members.

Andrew Slee, assistant county trading standards officer, said that Mr Beverly-Wilson was currently under investigation. Mr Slee said: 'We hope to conclude the investigation as soon as possible.'

It is understood that one aspect of the investigation is the advertisement in the directory, but that it is not linked with Mr Beverly-Wilson's fees.

Staff at Mr Beverly-Wilson's offices yesterday said he was not available for comment. Susan Fielder, the practice's manager and Mr Beverly-Wilson's sister, said she was 'fed up' with talking to newspapers.

'We have our normal lives and we want to get on with them.' She said the practice would continue taking cases 'through the courts as normal. The courts will decide'.

She said she could think of no reason why so many people had cause for complaint against her brother.

A statement issued by Addison, Sons and Madden, the solicitors acting for Beverly-Wilson and Co, said the protests had been orchestrated by 'a very small minority' of the firm's former clients.

It added that further legal advice was being sought 'as to the civil procedures and remedies' to put an end to the group's activities 'and it is hoped that the police will in any event be taking further action'.

In the recent past, the statement said, 'court proceedings have been taken against former clients in respect of unpaid bills and that judgements in full have been obtained'.