In a double-whammy of sorts for the Big Four audit-cum-consultancy firms – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – the Bar Council of Delhi on Friday directed the four firms to refrain from providing legal services to clients till further notice.
The move comes after a complaint was filed by the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF), representing around 100 Indian law firms. SILF said in its complaint that the Big Four were actually accounting firms, but are engaged in "doing law practice". SILF had filed a similar complaint to the Bar Council in 2015 alleging that the Big Four were resorting to "unauthorised practice of law" in violation of the Advocates Act.
The Bar Council order asked the four firms to provide a list of advocates on their rolls. The order copy said that while Deloitte and KPMG had filed their response to the complaint, PwC and EY had asked for more time to submit their response. The Council has deferred the matter for further hearing to July 12. It has asked the four firms to refrain from the practice until further orders.
The development comes at a time when the Big Four firms are under the scanner for audit-related practices. The recent meltdown at IL&FS group has put the spotlight on statutory auditors.
Many in the chartered accountant fraternity were of the view that there were grey areas over jurisdiction of non-litigation related legal services. In their earlier response in 2015, one of the Big Four firms had said that they were not "engaged in the practice of law". A source in one of the Big Four firms reiterated the same stand that they do not represent any legal firm. "We do not practice in any area that only advocates are supposed to practice," he added.
There has been growing angst in the legal fraternity that multinational audit-cum-consultancy firms have over the years hired lawyers in large numbers to offer legal advice to clients. “It is a turf battle between lawyers and chartered accountants,” noted a senior advocate and chartered accountant. There are many lawyers – registered with the Bar Council – who offer tax advice to clients.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Chartered Accountants refused to get drawn into this fight and did not offer any official comment to Bar Council’s order.