What’s your opinion of local authority accounts? Mark Swallow mswallow@arlingclose.com

In my recent insight I discussed the current crisis in local authority audit Auditing Local Authority Accounts (arlingclose.com) which is seeing a delay in accounts being audited. A product of the audit process is for an independent assessment on the financial statements of an organisation to express an opinion on their fairness and compliance with applicable accounting principles, which is given through the auditor’s opinion, many people have opinions, but many local authorities are still waiting for the opinion from their auditor!

The audit opinion is therefore a crucial component for stakeholders, providing them with insights into the reliability of financial information provided by a local authority. Stakeholders that place value on the fact that someone has given an opinion on the robustness of a local authorities financial standing are numerous, including myself as I want to know that my local taxation payments are being spent correctly.

An unqualified audit opinion is one of the key milestones of a local authority accountants’ career whilst receiving a qualified opinion is seen as a failure, in this insight I will outline the differences between a qualified and unqualified audit opinions, highlighting their implications for stakeholder confidence.

An unqualified audit opinion, also known as a clean opinion, is issued when the auditor determines that the financial statements present a true and fair view of the organisations financial position, results of operations, and cash flows. This opinion indicates that the auditor found no material misstatements, departures from accounting principles, or significant uncertainties that could impact the users' understanding of the financial statements. It is considered the most favourable opinion an auditor can provide.

A qualified audit opinion is issued when the auditor encounters certain limitations or exceptions in the financial statements that, in their judgment, are not pervasive enough to warrant a complete denial of a clean opinion. This type of opinion suggests that while the financial statements are fairly presented overall, there are specific areas of concern that require attention.

There are a couple of key differences between qualified and unqualified audit opinions:

  • Scope Limitation: - A qualified opinion may result from a scope limitation, which occurs when the auditor is unable to gather sufficient evidence or access specific information necessary to verify certain transactions or balances. The limitation could be due to factors such as restricted access to records, incomplete documentation, or restrictions imposed by the entity being audited. In contrast, an unqualified opinion reflects that the auditor had full access to all necessary information.
  • Material Misstatements: - A qualified opinion may arise if the auditor identifies material misstatements in the financial statements that do affect specific accounts or disclosures. Material misstatements refer to errors or omissions that could influence the economic decisions of financial statement users. In an unqualified opinion, the auditor has determined that there are no material misstatements present in the financial statements.
  • Departure from Accounting Principles: - If the auditor finds departures from the Code of Practice, but these departures are not significant enough to warrant a denial of a clean opinion, a qualified opinion may be issued. An unqualified opinion confirms that the financial statements comply with the Code.

Understanding the distinctions between a qualified and unqualified audit opinion is vital for stakeholders who rely on audited financial statements.

While an unqualified opinion provides reassurance about the reliability of the financial statements, a qualified opinion indicates the presence of limitations or exceptions that require attention.

Ultimately, the audit opinion serves as a critical tool for evaluating the accuracy and transparency of a local authorities financial reporting and financial standing, aiding stakeholders in making informed decisions and understanding the activities of a local authority, the delay in providing audits and therefore opinions, qualified or unqualified, is not helping the local authority sector and in the cases of some stakeholders impacting on their ability and appetite to deal with the local authority sector.

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