HHG Legal Group is proud to be an expert for Legalwise News, assisting the publication answer reader questions. In their inaugural edition, Greg Gaunt discussed whether a ‘Banking Oath’ would lead to higher professional standards within the industry. 

The Banking and Finance Oath states:

Trust is the foundation of my profession. I will serve all interests in good faith. I will compete with honour. I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint.  I will help create a sustainable future. I will help create a more just society. I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same. I will accept responsibility for my actions. In these and all other matters; My word is my bond.

The Question:

How does the Banking and Finance Oath fit in with the notion of a profession which lawyers and accountants hold?  If a new profession arises, how does it absorb the concepts of a profession?  Can a bank officer ever be part of a profession and if not, why not?

Greg’s Answer:

Possessing specialist knowledge and skills in a well-recognised body of learning derived from education and training at a very high level;The notion of what does and what doesn’t (and what should and what shouldn’t) constitute a “Profession” has become greyer in modern times. Essentially a “professional person” is a member of a group:

Professing commitment to competence, morality, integrity and the promotion of public good; Recognised by the general public for its expertise and trusted for its commitment to those qualities. 

The best known example of a “Professional Oath” is the Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Hippocrates is seen as the father of western medicine, although the Hippocratic Oath may pre-date him. The Hippocratic oath amply fits the criteria outlined above. It has been preserved but not without some amendment, through to modern times. 

The events of World War 2 particularly caused its review, with real concern over the state of medical ethics in the world during that engagement. As a result, the World Medical Association drafted the Declaration of Geneva in 1948, intended as a revision of the Hippocratic Oath and referred to as a “Pledge”.

The original Hippocratic Oath was sworn before Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses as witnesses. This accorded with the notion of how an oath was given in those days. While we may laugh at that today, it was obviously treated as a serious undertaking at the time.

While the notion of the Hippocratic Oath is still seen as valid today, there is a real question of how many doctors actually give it and to whom it is given. It survives as a ceremonial part of a university graduation ceremony. That does not appear, however, to have undermined the perception by the public of its importance and effect.

In the case of lawyers, it is common to swear an oath upon admission, essentially to truly and honestly conduct oneself in the practice of a lawyer and to the best of one’s ability. In that case, such an oath is given to the court.

In the case of accountants, there is no oath, as such, but reliance upon a Code of Ethics. 

In each case, however, matters don’t end there and there are regulatory bodies set up worldwide to ensure compliance with standards and obligations. 

Within that context, therefore, the notion of a “Banking Oath” for the “Banking Profession” faces some threshold issues, including:

Is banking generally a profession? It appears to fall short if the definition above is to apply. To whom would such an oath be given? If intended to be given to oneself or to persons nearby, then that’s not how the notion of an oath is normally perceived.

While the motives for this oath may be entirely pure, a cynic would say that it professes to be more than it is in several material respects (and that can potentially lead to it being characterised as just marketing).

The full test for such an oath (just as it is the test for any person or group proclaiming “professionalism” generally) is not whether the proper well-meaning commitments are professed, but also whether specialist knowledge and skills underpin it, and there is recognition and trust by the general public. 

Events such as those dealt with, to date, in the current Banking Royal Commission would tend to indicate that such an oath will not cut the mustard.