Credit where it's due

Business knowledge is key to the work of the forensic accountant, says Mark Ling. Mark Ling is a partner at the London office of chartered accountants Cooper Lancaster Brewers.

The principal role of the forensic accountant is to provide the instructing solicitor with distinct, admissible evidence from what is likely to be regarded by non-experts as an unintelligible mass of figures and financial papers.

Few documents contain more figures than bank statements – in the case of the following example, more than 600 pages spread over both personal and business accounts.

A client discovered she had been overcharged interest and other bank charges by a major high street bank. This overcharging caused the client to exceed her overdraft limit. The bank then refused to honour cheques drawn over the agreed limit with a consequential effect on the client's credit rating with suppliers. The losses of lines of credit affected her business to such an extent that the client was forced into bankruptcy.

The client did not have time to review the bank statements while running her business. But in the aftermath of the bankruptcy, she then did so and came to the conclusion that she had been overcharged. After many fruitless months writing to the bank, she instructed her solicitors, who in turn secured the services of a forensic accountant.

The discovery process yielded a mass of notes from the bank's branch manager confirming the rate of charges to be applied. The instructing lawyer required evidence that proved the client had been overcharged and, more importantly, that the business would have continued if her credit worthiness had not been tarnished.

This assignment employed the two key strengths of forensic accountants – the analytical side in reproducing the bank balance day by day, applying the agreed charges and interest, plus the business knowledge and experience gained in the real world of commerce.

We were able to prove that the client had been overcharged by about £10,000 – a relatively small figure compared with the losses – and that most of the dishonoured cheques were caused solely by the bank's error. We were also able to state which cheques in excess of the agreed limit a bank manager would customarily clear.

The client won a high court ruling allowing her to bring a claim of more than £500,000 for damages against the bank.

The case was the first in which a customer was allowed to bring a claim for damages against a bank as a result of being overcharged.