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Auditors are “watchdogs, not bloodhounds” said the court in Re Kingston Cotton Mill Co. (No. 2) [1896] 2 Ch 279 CA. Even at the time this was a very limited view of what we can expect of auditors or their like. (It was also infelicitous; auditors are not and never were, even metaphorically, like “watchdogs”). Considering that Sherlock Holmes was an available “example” (1880 to 1907), it is surprising the judge did not feel more could be expected of the auditors of his day than he settled for.

The job of an auditor is to ascertain if the accounts provide “a true and fair view” of the company’s financial position. However, the auditor’s judgment on this is not, and should not be, absolute. After all, the auditor should not be the equivalent of an insurer where he pays if there is something wrong and loss accrues. In modern times the profession, as always, determines the liability of auditors. The profession has issued guidelines for auditors. Those guidelines now impose a higher standard on auditors than Re Kingston.

These guidelines were quoted in Moore Stephens (a firm) v Stone & Rolls Limited (in liquidation) [2009] UKHL 39

”Auditing Standard SAS 110 (issued January 1995) deals with fraud and error. It contains statements of auditing standards (SAS) and explanatory text in numbered paragraphs. SAS 110.1 states: “Auditors should plan and perform their audit procedures and evaluate and report the results thereof, recognising that fraud or error may materially affect the financial statements”. SAS 110.10 (para. 50) states that, on becoming aware of a suspected or actual instance of fraud, auditors
“should (a) consider whether the matter may be one that ought to be reported to a proper authority in the public interest; and where this is the case (b) except in the circumstances covered in SAS 110.12, discuss the matter with the board of directors, including any audit committee”.
SAS 110.12 (para. 52) provides that
“When a suspected or actual instance of fraud casts doubt on the integrity of the directors auditors should make a report direct to a proper authority in the public interest without delay and without informing the directors in advance.” “

The fact that the auditors in that case escaped by the skin of their teeth shows life is going to get difficult for the profession.