Accountant struck off rolls gets second chance

Court finds the punishment excessive for her offence and suspends her for 2 years instead

An errant public accountant who was struck off the professional register within a year of being registered has been given a second chance, when the High Court allowed her appeal and suspended her for two years instead.

The court, which noted that Leow Kwee Huay had worked for more than 25 years as "an unregistered clerk without blemish" before qualifying as an accountant, ruled that the punishment was "manifestly excessive".

Justice Choo Han Teck, in judgment grounds released yesterday, said: "To finally be admitted as a certified public accountant and be struck off the register within a year of finally becoming a certified public accountant appears harsh in the context of the wrong that she did."

Leow, formerly an audit manager at accounting firm Er & Co, was convicted in 2013 on seven charges of forgery and jailed a total of five days. In September last year, after a disciplinary inquiry, the Public Accountants Oversight Committee deregistered her as her convictions involved dishonesty. Her offence involved appending her signature to the firm's name on audit reports without authorisation.

Through lawyer Daniel Chia Jin Chong, Leow appealed to the High Court, arguing that the oversight committee was flawed in giving insufficient weight to the special facts of the case. For instance, there was no harm suffered by the victim and no evidence that the audited financial statements were inaccurate. No one was put at risk and there was no market impact.

Mr Chia pointed out that Leow was jailed for two to three days on each charge - well below the six-month term imposed for forgery crimes.

Counsel Lim Jen Hui of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority called for the cancellation to be upheld, arguing that there were no "compelling mitigating factors".

Justice Choo said the integrity and honesty of the accountant, as well as the manner in which the offences were committed, are significant factors in sentencing but "all these factors must be considered on the facts of each case".

He said while the signature on the statements was forged, the contents were not false or inaccurate.

Leow was said to have done it because the owner of Er & Co was until then the only person who could sign the statements. "This is thus more like an unauthorised signature than a forgery as commonly understood," said the judge.

While he agreed she should be punished, he found the dishonesty involved limited. But he warned that her career will end for good if she repeated the misconduct.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Accountant struck off rolls gets second chance'. Print Edition | Subscribe