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ATO sets out its compliance approach to auditor Independence Guide

The ATO has released its compliance approach to the new Independence Guide and in-house SMSF audits.

ATO sets out its compliance approach to auditor Independence Guide
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  • Staff Reporter
  • October 16, 2020
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The new Independence Guide (Fifth Edition, May 2020) makes it clear that auditing firms will need to overcome several hurdles when performing in-house audits of self-managed super funds (SMSFs), to meet the requirements of the restructured APES 110 Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants (including Independence Standards).

In a notice published this week, the Australian Taxation Office explained that the practice of separating the auditing from the accounting or advice services to conduct in-house audits in the same firm, is sometimes referred to as Chinese Walls or ethical walls. However, the code and guide now make it clear that in-house audits will not meet the independence requirements of the code except in very limited circumstances.

The ATO outlined the three hurdles that need to be overcome before this practice can be acceptable: 

  1. The first hurdle is a firm or network firm shall not assume a management responsibility for an audit client (para R600.7). There are examples of management responsibilities at paragraph 600.7A3 of the code. These include preparation of the financial statements, as well as other advice or decisions that might be made with respect to the fund’s compliance with the super laws. They are typically activities or decisions which involve the exercise of professional judgment. To avoid assuming a management responsibility when providing non-assurance services to an audit client, the firm must be satisfied that the SMSF trustee makes all judgments and decisions that are the proper responsibility of management (para R600.8).
  2. The second hurdle is a firm or network firm that is looking to provide an audit to a client that is not a public interest entity such as a SMSF, accounting and bookkeeping services including preparing financial statements on which the firm will express an opinion, cannot do so unless the services are routine or mechanical (para R601.5).
  3. The third hurdle is, even where the firm can demonstrate they did not take on management responsibilities for the audit client and the preparation of the financial statements were routine or mechanical in nature, the firm must address any threats that are not at an acceptable level (para R601.5).

Independence threats can arise when a firm or network firm undertakes management responsibilities on behalf of a SMSF, and the audit is performed in-house, the ATO pointed out. 

"Since many trustees hand over the management of their fund to their administrator or accountant rather than make all judgments and decisions themselves, most firms will find it difficult to get over the first hurdle. Trustees cannot simply approve everything after the fact," said the ATO. 

"Therefore, regardless of how simple the fund’s investments may be, or whether those investments are on data feeds, the auditor will not be able to conduct the audit for a client of the same firm if they have assumed management responsibilities for the trustee."

To demonstrate a firm has not assumed management responsibilities for the trustee, the ATO explained that the firm must document and provide sufficient appropriate evidence on the audit file showing the trustee has the suitable skills, knowledge and experience to remain responsible at all times, for the accounting and compliance decisions of the SMSF. 

"If the firm is unable to demonstrate the trustee's ability to take on management responsibility, then the auditor, their staff or their firm are unable to prepare the financial statements and audit them," the ATO clarified. 

"If the firm can demonstrate the trustee's ability to take responsibility, for example, the trustee has an accounting or similar qualification, then the auditor needs to have evidence on the file that the second hurdle has been overcome – that is the preparation of the financial statements was routine or mechanical and the firm has addressed any threats that aren’t at an acceptable level."

It noted that evidence of the preparation of the financial statements being routine or mechanical must demonstrate the trustee approved the records and entries in the trial balance that the auditor’s firm then used to prepare pro-forma financial statements. 

"We may contact trustees to confirm their understanding of their fund’s transactions and compliance with Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993 (SISA) legislation," the ATO said.

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