INSIGHT: A cautionary tale for professionals who help out friends
Professionals can be held financially liable if ‘freebie work’ goes wrong.
Professionals such as solicitors, barristers, architects and engineers have a duty to take care when providing advice and services to their clients. If they do not, and their clients suffer financial losses arising from negligent advice or inadequate services, a professional can be held legally responsible for those losses regardless of whether there is a contract in place.
If asked, most people would probably say that this duty of care does not apply to work they carry out for friends at no charge. However, a recent case has confirmed that in some circumstances, professionals can be liable for negligent work carried out gratuitously.
The case of Burgess & Anor v Lejonvarn (15 January 2016)
Ms Lejonvarn, the defendant, was an old friend and neighbour of the claimants, Mr and Mrs Burgess. The Burgesses had been given a quote of £150,000 plus VAT to carry out earthworks and landscaping in their back garden. Thinking that too expensive, they asked Ms Lejonvarn, a professional architect, for assistance with the landscaping project. While there was no contract and no agreement for payment for the provision of her services, Ms Lejonvarn hoped that by doing this work, she would be paid for providing some other services at a later date and that the work would help her to establish her own architecture business.
Unfortunately, the landscaping project did not go to plan. Eventually, Mr and Mrs Burgess called in another party to complete the works - including some remedial works – at a cost of £256,000. They then claimed those costs back from Ms Lejonvarn in court proceedings.
At court, the judge was asked to decide on some preliminary legal points such as whether there was a contract and whether Ms Lejonvarn owed a professional duty of care to the Burgesses.
The judge found a lack of clarity about the terms upon which the services would be provided and concluded that the parties had not entered into a contract for the services. However, after considering how the parties had behaved and spoken to each other, the judge also concluded that Ms Lejonvarn had agreed to provide professional services to the Burgesses. The fact that she had not expected to be paid for the first part of the works did not affect his conclusion. She had assumed responsibility for the job and the Burgesses had relied on her professional services. Consequently, Ms Lejonvarn owed a duty of care to the Burgesses, she had breached that duty of care in various ways that had led to remedial works being needed and was therefore liable for some of the losses suffered by the Burgesses as a result.
Whether the friends were paying for the services was just one of the factors that the judge considered when deciding whether there was a professional duty of care owed to a friend for work done. Other more important factors included how much time and money each party had committed to implement the services. In this case, there was a significant time and money commitment from the parties.
Having found that Ms Lejonvarn owed a duty of care, the judge gave a strong recommendation that the parties use his findings to settle their differences and reach a financial compromise. The judge also suggested that mediation would be appropriate. Given that Ms Lejonvarn has no professional indemnity insurance, it would be surprising if the parties did not take the settlement route to resolve this dispute.
Cautionary words for professionals and their friends
The judge called this a ‘cautionary tale’… and we have added our own cautionary words below.
If you are a professional, consider your position before you agree to help out friends – especially if the services required are anything more than a brief piece of advice given in an informal setting. Ask questions like the following:
- What is the nature of the works?
- Are you qualified to take on the job or give the advice?
- Are you happy for your friends to rely on your advice/services?
- What kind of loss would your friends suffer if your advice turns out to be wrong or your services inadequate?
- Do you have professional indemnity insurance in place?
- Are you going to enter into a contract to formalize the relationship?
If you are thinking of asking a professional friend for help, stop a minute and think about putting a contract in place before the work starts. A contract will set out clearly what both parties want from the relationship - and who will be responsible for what. Finally, consider whether you really want to jeopardize your friendship for the sake of a ‘freebie’?
A bit of guidance from a mate might be useful but if you want something more substantive doing, ensure your friend is suitably qualified for the job, enter into a formal contract, pay the appropriate rate and ensure your friend has professional indemnity insurance in place.
If you need advice on professional negligence or require advice on contracts for services, contact Christopher Burke on 0161 684 6941 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.
This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.