The following auditing standard is not the current version and does not reflect any amendments effective on or after December 31, 2016. The current version of the auditing standards can be found here.
AU Section 337
Inquiry of a Client's Lawyer Concerning Litigation, Claims, and Assessments fn 1
- (.02 - .03) Accounting Considerations
- (.04 - .14) Auditing Considerations
- (A) Appendix
- (B) Exhibit I
- (C) Exhibit II
Source: SAS No. 12.
See section 9337 for interpretations of this section.
Issue date, unless otherwise indicated: January, 1976.
This section provides guidance on the procedures an independent auditor should consider for identifying litigation, claims, and assessments and for satisfying himself as to the financial accounting and reporting for such matters when he is performing an audit in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards.
Management is responsible for adopting policies and procedures to identify, evaluate, and account for litigation, claims, and assessments as a basis for the preparation of financial statements in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.
The standards of financial accounting and reporting for loss contingencies, including those arising from litigation, claims, and assessments, are set forth in Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 [AC section C59], Accounting for Contingencies. fn 2
With respect to litigation, claims, and assessments, the independent auditor should obtain evidential matter relevant to the following factors:
- The existence of a condition, situation, or set of circumstances indicating an uncertainty as to the possible loss to an entity arising from litigation, claims, and assessments.
- The period in which the underlying cause for legal action occurred.
- The degree of probability of an unfavorable outcome.
- The amount or range of potential loss.
Since the events or conditions that should be considered in the financial accounting for and reporting of litigation, claims, and assessments are matters within the direct knowledge and, often, control of management of an entity, management is the primary source of information about such matters. Accordingly, the independent auditor's procedures with respect to litigation, claims, and assessments should include the following:
- Inquire of and discuss with management the policies and procedures adopted for identifying, evaluating, and accounting for litigation, claims, and assessments.
- Obtain from management a description and evaluation of litigation, claims, and assessments that existed at the date of the balance sheet being reported on, and during the period from the balance sheet date to the date the information is furnished, including an identification of those matters referred to legal counsel, and obtain assurances from management, ordinarily in writing, that they have disclosed all such matters required to be disclosed by Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 [AC section C59].
- Examine documents in the client's possession concerning litigation, claims, and assessments, including correspondence and invoices from lawyers.
- Obtain assurance from management, ordinarily in writing, that it has disclosed all unasserted claims that the lawyer has advised them are probable of assertion and must be disclosed in accordance with Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 [AC section C59]. Also the auditor, with the client's permission, should inform the lawyer that the client has given the auditor this assurance. This client representation may be communicated by the client in the inquiry letter or by the auditor in a separate letter. fn 3
An auditor ordinarily does not possess legal skills and, therefore, cannot make legal judgments concerning information coming to his attention. Accordingly, the auditor should request the client's management to send a letter of inquiry to those lawyers with whom management consulted concerning litigation, claims, and assessments.
The audit normally includes certain other procedures undertaken for different purposes that might also disclose litigation, claims, and assessments. Examples of such procedures are as follows:
- Reading minutes of meetings of stockholders, directors, and appropriate committees held during and subsequent to the period being audited.
- Reading contracts, loan agreements, leases, and correspondence from taxing or other governmental agencies, and similar documents.
- Obtaining information concerning guarantees from bank confirmation forms.
- Inspecting other documents for possible guarantees by the client.
Inquiry of a Client's Lawyer fn 4
A letter of audit inquiry to the client's lawyer is the auditor's primary means of obtaining corroboration of the information furnished by management concerning litigation, claims, and assessments. fn 5 Evidential matter obtained from the client's inside general counsel or legal department may provide the auditor with the necessary corroboration. However, evidential matter obtained from inside counsel is not a substitute for information outside counsel refuses to furnish.
The matters that should be covered in a letter of audit inquiry include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Identification of the company, including subsidiaries, and the date of the audit.
- A list prepared by management (or a request by management that the lawyer prepare a list) that describes and evaluates pending or threatened litigation, claims, and assessments with respect to which the lawyer has been engaged and to which he has devoted substantive attention on behalf of the company in the form of legal consultation or representation.
- A list prepared by management that describes and evaluates unasserted claims and assessments that management considers to be probable of assertion, and that, if asserted, would have at least a reasonable possibility of an unfavorable outcome, with respect to which the lawyer has been engaged and to which he has devoted substantive attention on behalf of the company in the form of legal consultation or representation.
- As to each matter listed in item b, a request that the lawyer either furnish the following information or comment on those matters as to which his views may differ from those stated by management, as appropriate:
(1) A description of the nature of the matter, the progress of the case to date, and the action the company intends to take (for example, to contest the matter vigorously or to seek an out-of-court settlement). (2) An evaluation of the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome and an estimate, if one can be made, of the amount or range of potential loss. (3) With respect to a list prepared by management, an identification of the omission of any pending or threatened litigation, claims, and assessments or a statement that the list of such matters is complete.
- As to each matter listed in item c, a request that the lawyer comment on those matters as to which his views concerning the description or evaluation of the matter may differ from those stated by management.
- A statement by the client that the client understands that whenever, in the course of performing legal services for the client with respect to a matter recognized to involve an unasserted possible claim or assessment that may call for financial statement disclosure, the lawyer has formed a professional conclusion that the client should disclose or consider disclosure concerning such possible claim or assessment, the lawyer, as a matter of professional responsibility to the client, will so advise the client and will consult with the client concerning the question of such disclosure and the applicable requirements of Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 [AC section C59].
- A request that the lawyer confirm whether the understanding described in item f is correct.
- A request that the lawyer specifically identify the nature of and reasons for any limitation on his response.
Inquiry need not be made concerning matters that are not considered material, provided the client and the auditor have reached an understanding on the limits of materiality for this purpose.
In special circumstances, the auditor may obtain a response concerning matters covered by the audit inquiry letter in a conference, which offers an opportunity for a more detailed discussion and explanation than a written reply. A conference may be appropriate when the evaluation of the need for accounting for or disclosure of litigation, claims, and assessments involves such matters as the evaluation of the effect of legal advice concerning unsettled points of law, the effect of uncorroborated information, or other complex judgments. The auditor should appropriately document conclusions reached concerning the need for accounting for or disclosure of litigation, claims, and assessments.
In some circumstances, a lawyer may be required by his Code of Professional Responsibility to resign his engagement if his advice concerning financial accounting and reporting for litigation, claims, and assessments is disregarded by the client. When the auditor is aware that a client has changed lawyers or that a lawyer engaged by the client has resigned, the auditor should consider the need for inquiries concerning the reasons the lawyer is no longer associated with the client.
Limitations on the Scope of a Lawyer's Response fn 6
A lawyer may appropriately limit his response to matters to which he has given substantive attention in the form of legal consultation or representation. Also, a lawyer's response may be limited to matters that are considered individually or collectively material to the financial statements, provided the lawyer and auditor have reached an understanding on the limits of materiality for this purpose. Such limitations are not limitations on the scope of the audit.
A lawyer's refusal to furnish the information requested in an inquiry letter either in writing or orally (see paragraphs .09 and .10) would be a limitation on the scope of the audit sufficient to preclude an unqualified opinion (see section 508.22 and .23). fn 7 A lawyer's response to such an inquiry and the procedures set forth in paragraph .05 provide the auditor with sufficient evidential matter to satisfy himself concerning the accounting for and reporting of pending and threatened litigation, claims and assessments. The auditor obtains sufficient evidential matter to satisfy himself concerning reporting for those unasserted claims and assessments required to be disclosed in financial statements from the foregoing procedures and the lawyer's specific acknowledgement of his responsibility to his client in respect of disclosure obligations (see paragraph .09g). This approach with respect to unasserted claims and assessments is necessitated by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of lawyer-client communications.
Other Limitations on a Lawyer's Response
A lawyer may be unable to respond concerning the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome of litigation, claims, and assessments or the amount or range of potential loss, because of inherent uncertainties. Factors influencing the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome may sometimes not be within a lawyer's competence to judge; historical experience of the entity in similar litigation or the experience of other entities may not be relevant or available; and the amount of the possible loss frequently may vary widely at different stages of litigation. Consequently, a lawyer may not be able to form a conclusion with respect to such matters. In such circumstances, the auditor ordinarily will conclude that the financial statements are affected by an uncertainty concerning the outcome of a future event which is not susceptible of reasonable estimation, and should look to the guidance in section 508.45 through .49 to determine the effect, if any, of the lawyer's response on the auditor's report. [Revised, February 1997, to reflect conforming changes necessary due to the issuance of Statement on Auditing Standards No. 79.]
Footnotes (AU Section 337 — Inquiry of a Client's Lawyer Concerning Litigation, Claims, and Assessments):
fn 1 This section supersedes the commentary, "Lawyers' Letters," January 1974 (section 1001), and auditing interpretations of section 560.12 on lawyers' letters, January 1975 (section 9560.01-.26). It amends section 560.12(d) to read as follows: "Inquire of client's legal counsel concerning litigation, claims, and assessments (see section 337)."
fn 2 Pertinent portions are reprinted in Exhibit I, section 337B. FASB Statement No. 5 [AC section C59], also describes the standards of financial accounting and reporting for gain contingencies. The auditor's procedures with respect to gain contingencies are parallel to those described in this SAS for loss contingencies.
fn 3 An example of a separate letter is as follows: We are writing to inform you that (name of company) has represented to us that (except as set forth below and excluding any such matters listed in the letter of audit inquiry) there are no unasserted possible claims that you have advised are probable of assertion and must be disclosed in accordance with Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 5 [AC section C59] in its financial statements at (balance sheet date) and for the (period) then ended. (List unasserted possible claims, if any.) Such a letter should be signed and sent by the auditor.
fn 4 An illustrative inquiry letter to legal counsel is contained in the Appendix (section 337A).
fn 5 It is not intended that the lawyer be requested to undertake a reconsideration of all matters upon which he was consulted during the period under audit for the purpose of determining whether he can form a conclusion regarding the probability of assertion of any possible claim inherent in any of the matters so considered.
fn 6 The American Bar Association has approved a "Statement of Policy Regarding Lawyers' Responses to Auditors' Requests for Information," which explains the concerns of lawyers and the nature of the limitations an auditor is likely to encounter. That Statement of Policy is reprinted as Exhibit II (section 337C) for the convenience of readers, but is not an integral part of this Statement.
fn 7 A refusal to respond should be distinguished from an inability to form a conclusion with respect to certain matters of judgment (see paragraph .14). Also, lawyers outside the United States sometimes follow practices at variance with those contemplated by this section to the extent that different procedures from those outlined herein may be necessary. In such circumstances, the auditor should exercise judgment in determining whether alternative procedures are adequate to comply with the requirements of this section.