Simon Terry Pearce, 48, who held no recognised accountancy qualifications, ran S T Pearce Accountants from offices in St Austell, Cornwall. He was convicted on 26 charges after a ten week trial at Truro Crown Court. The prosecution evidence assembled by HM Revenue & Customs ran to approaching 40,000 pages and, in total, 51 prosecution witnesses were called to give evidence.
It was alleged that over a period of several years Mr Pearce had operated his practice dishonestly by preparing tax returns for his clients which overstated their business expenses and the tax which they had suffered under the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS tax), overclaimed capital allowances particularly in relation to cars and – in relation to Capital Gains Tax – understated the sales proceeds of properties. In many cases Mr Pearce had revised previous years’ tax returns for new clients. The result of all this was that his clients’ tax liabilities were dishonestly understated and tax refunds were generated falsely.
It was further alleged that Mr Pearce had forged clients’ signatures and dishonestly abused HMRC’s Structured Action Request online system for taxpayers and their authorised agents with the result that clients’ tax refunds were paid by HMRC into his bank account rather than to the clients. Whilst in some cases these refunds were forwarded to clients fully and reasonably promptly, in many cases refund payments were delayed (sometimes by a period of years), or paid on only in part, or not paid on at all.
Finally it was alleged that in relation to Mr Pearce’s own tax returns he had dishonestly understated his fee income and that he had failed to register his business for VAT at the appropriate time.
Mr Pearce’s defence
Mr Pearce said that he had not been dishonest. The tax returns which he had prepared for clients reflected the information which clients had provided to himself and his staff at interviews with them. He had included fair estimates of expenditures for which the clients had no documentary evidence, particularly in relation to travelling and subsistence. He had misunderstood tax law in relation to motor cars, believing that 100% first year allowances or annual investment allowances were available, and the abolition of CGT taper relief in 2008 had not come to his attention.
He had arranged for clients’ tax refunds to be paid to his bank account when fees were due to him. His failure to pass the balance of refunds on to clients was as a result of inadequate and misleading information received from HMRC, poor record keeping in his office and pressure of work resulting from having taken on too many clients. He had fobbed off clients who had enquired about their refunds and had given them excuses and explanations for delays which were untrue. He accepted that he had used HMRC’s online Structured Action Request facility to arrange refunds to be paid to him but believed he was entitled to do so.
He asserted that clients’ income tax returns were only submitted to HMRC after clients knew what was on them, albeit that the clients may have received and signed paper copies of the returns only after they had been filed online with HMRC.
I was instructed by Mr Pearce’s solicitors and counsel to advise them on generally accepted conduct by accountants in relation to the preparation of accounts and tax returns for clients, relevant tax law and practice, the proper treatment of clients’ tax refunds, and to examine Mr Pearce’s own business records and those of certain of his clients, together with the associated accounts and tax computations, to advise whether tax liabilities had been understated.
I attended court and advised the defence team throughout the presentation of the prosecution case but I was not myself called to give evidence. The only witness called by the defence was Mr Pearce himself.
The clients’ evidence
The clients typically gave evidence to the effect that they relied upon and trusted Mr Pearce as their accountant to deal properly with their accounts and tax affairs. In many cases they denied providing Mr Pearce with information which he claimed to have received from them.
They did not themselves understand accounts or tax and believed that their tax returns were being correctly prepared and that they were entitled to any refunds which they had received. They were devastated when they learned that they were required to repay substantial sums to HMRC.
The jury found Mr Pearce guilty on 26 of the 30 counts which he faced. Clearly the jury considered him to have been thoroughly dishonest over a period of years.
The lessons to be learned
Mr Pearce frequently received tax refunds on behalf of clients but did not operate a client bank account. In practice refunds received were swallowed up by business and private expenses leaving Mr Pearce unable to pass on to clients the monies which were due to them.
The firm’s working papers and interview notes in support of figures in the accounts and tax returns were inadequate to demonstrate persuasively which figures were based on information that had been provided by clients and which were based on estimates made by Mr Pearce apparently based on his general knowledge of his clients’ activities – or to refute the allegations that some increases in claimed expenses arose purely from fabrications by Mr Pearce.
In many cases business expenses in accounts and returns had apparently been compiled based only on an examination of paid bills and discussions with clients – and without examination of clients’ bank statements. In the majority of cases which I examined Balance Sheets had not been prepared. Had the accountancy work been more thorough then many mis-statements which were made on tax returns, for example from duplication of genuine expenditures, could have been avoided.
Either Mr Pearce’s knowledge of tax law and practice was faulty and out of date in important respects or he was claiming allowances and reliefs for his clients which he knew were not available to them.
This was a very significant prosecution by HMRC, the biggest case ever prosecuted by them in Cornwall, and a major case by any standards. Few Crown Court trials run to ten weeks or involve over 50 witnesses and few criminal investigations generate approaching 40,000 pages of exhibits. The prosecution asserted that Mr Pearce had ultimately retained £170,000 in refunds due to his clients and that overall HMRC had lost between £1 million and £2 million as a result of his activities.
I have no doubt that my advice was valuable to the defence in professionally examining the prosecution evidence and ensuring that it was appropriately challenged. Ultimately the weight of evidence against Mr Pearce was overwhelming and the jury were sure that he had been dishonest.
(Note: This article refers to a criminal prosecution in England and Wales. There are a number of additional issues which could be relevant to criminal proceedings in particular cases which it is not possible to deal with in an article such as this. Appropriate professional advice should be sought in each individual case.)