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12 Aug 2021

Commercial litigation

When professional advice is not professional

There are times throughout our lives in which we often turn to the ‘professionals’ for advice – such as a solicitor when purchasing a property, or a doctor when you are suffering with back pain.

But what happens when the advice they provide you with causes harm or leaves you out of pocket? Ben Jenkins, Partner and head of our Dispute Resolution team, examines the legal options available to you when the experts do not get it right.

What is professional negligence?

When someone agrees to undertake professional services on your behalf, such as a project manager, architect or accountant, they owe you a duty of care and must exercise ‘reasonable care’ when providing these services, whether or not there is a contractual relationship. Professional negligence refers to a failure by a professional to fulfill their duties to this standard, breaching their duty or care which results in you suffering financial loss, physical damage or injury.

Who does it apply to?

Anyone who is claiming to provide an expert service or specialist advice can be held liable, but the most common professional service providers that face claims of professional negligence include:

  • Solicitors – e.g. making errors when writing a will or buying a house, under-settling a claim for compensation or missing key court deadlines.
  • Accountants – e.g. giving careless advice on the tax implications of a transaction or failing to file tax returns on time.
  • Construction companies – e.g. defective workmanship.
  • Architects – e.g. defective drawings or design.
  • Engineers – e.g. failing to spot a structural flaw in buildings.
  • Medical professionals – e.g. misdiagnosis or failure to provide the correct diagnosis.

How you are protected

Many of the service industries have established regulatory bodies, whose primary function is to protect the public from harm. For example, Harding Evans is a member of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Every member of our 100-strong team must comply with the SRA handbook, which sets out the SRA’s Code of Conduct.

We must also appoint a dedicated compliance officer for finance and administration, as well as an officer for legal practice, who are responsible for managing the risks of our services, as well as reporting any breaches of duty.

Auditors, accountants and actuaries are regulated by the Financial Reporting Council and Doctors must conform to the standards set out by the General Medical Council, to name just a few.

Regulatory bodies play an important part in establishing and enforcing accepted standards, and complaints can often be made to such bodies if you are dissatisfied with the service provider.

Proving professional negligence

You need to set out detailed grounds on which you assert professional negligence. You should follow any relevant Pre Action Protocol published on the Ministry of Justice’s website. Crucially, in order to make a successful claim, you will need to demonstrate that:

  • You were owed a duty of care by the professional;
  • The professional breached that duty of care; and
  • As a result of the breach, you suffered a loss.

Many actions require the input of experts who can assess the liability of a party, the amount of loss they have caused you and why.

Things to consider

It is worth noting that there is a difference between poor service and professional negligence.

While you may expect your accountant or solicitor to be efficient in their role and keep you in the loop when key decisions are being made, simply being slow or ineffective will not necessarily amount to negligence. To successfully pursue a claim of professional negligence, you will have to prove that the service provided fell below the required standard, and that this poor conduct caused you financial loss, damage or injury.

Perhaps equally important to know before kick-starting the claims process is that strict time limits do apply. In most cases, you must initiate the process within six years of the alleged negligence. However, legislation does take into consideration that you may not be immediately aware that a negligent service has been provided, or that the consequences of the professional negligence took longer than six years to surface. In some cases, the limitation period may be extended to three years from the date when you know or ought to have known about the claim.

You should seek expert legal advice as soon as you suspect negligence, as the process is often complex and time-consuming and there may be a limitation period deadline looming.

For advice on making a professional negligence claim, speak to our expert Dispute Resolution team on 01633 244233 or email hello@hevans.com

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