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Should lawyers should fear the implications of a case where an architect was found liable for free professional advice to friends? Perhaps not but they must still exercise caution.

The Court of Appeal will give judgment in coming weeks over a £265,000 claim by a London couple suing their neighbour for allegedly negligent advice on a garden landscape project.

The case, decided in favour of the Claimants in the High Court, has set off alarm bells among the professions, particularly as there was no contract involved. The court found in January that the architect, Basia Lejonvarn, owed a duty of care to her friends of 10 years to exercise ‘reasonable skill and care’ in the provision of professional services.

The case may ‘make people think twice’ about free advice, but lawyers can cover themselves reasonably easily.

The extent of the Defendant’s involvement – including costing the project and assembling a team – was unlikely to be matched by a solicitor. She went way beyond a chat in a pub or at a party. Of course, every solicitor has friends with legal issues from time to time. If you are giving [free] advice you should always couch it by saying “don’t rely on this”.

The case hinges on whether the professional did owe her friends a duty of care, however ‘informal’ the relationship was supposed to be.

The High Court judge, Mr Alexander Nissen QC, called this a ‘cautionary tale’ and pointed out that the absence of a contract was not a protection from liability.

 ‘Advice’ offered to prospective new clients is a particularly risky area. There is always the worry that they will go off and act on it however preliminary or sketchy the thoughts offered. What is certain is that the case provided a salutary lesson for any professional tempted to offer free advice.

The boundary between informal advice seemingly given to friends or associates in a social context, and situations where there is an assumption of responsibility by a professional and reliance on their special skills, can become ‘blurred’.

It is not difficult to envisage analogous situations arising in the context of professionals voluntarily acting in other unpaid roles.

So if you have been given advice and perhaps acted on it, there may be some recourse if the Courts then find there was some duty of care.

If you would like any further information about this please contact the Head of Dispute Resolution at Chattertons, David Rogerson.